Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Symphony No 4 in D minor, Op, 120 [23:59]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Le Martyre de Saint Sebastian - Suite [20:29]
La Mer [22:31]
Philharmonia Orchestra/Guido Cantelli
rec. 9 September 1954, Usher Hall, Edinburgh. ADD
This disc preserves almost all of a remarkable Edinburgh Festival concert by Guido Cantelli. One item is missing. The concert opened with another Schumann piece, the Manfred Overture, but sadly that recording hasn’t survived.
The three pieces that have been preserved are not new to the Cantelli discography. He had already recorded the Schumann symphony with the Philharmonia in May 1953. I acquired that recording many years ago on an EMI Références disc (CDM 763085 2), coupled with his equally fine recording of the Brahms Third Symphony, set down in 1955. I suspect that disc is no longer available and that you can only now acquire the Schumann recording - and the Brahms - as part of a recently issued nine-disc Cantelli set in EMI’s Icon series (6790432). As for the Debussy items, Cantelli and the Philharmonia had recorded Le Martyre de Saint Sebastian in June 1954 and just a few days after this Edinburgh concert they went back into the studio to set down La Mer. Both of those Debussy performances are also included in the aforementioned EMI Icon box. You can also find them on a single Testament disc (SBT 1011), which I’ve owned for many years and which is still available. It’s worth pointing out the availability of these recordings because some collectors may not want to duplicate. However, I’d argue that even if you have these splendid studio recordings - and I’ve no intention of parting with my copies - Cantelli admirers should also invest in this present disc. Partly they should do so because there’s the undeniable frisson of a live event. However, these performances also prove that Cantelli could achieve his famously fastidiously balanced and accurate performances away from studio conditions when there’s no chance of a retake.
All three performances on this disc are exceptionally fine. The Schumann symphony is notable for the vitality that Cantelli brings to the Lebhaft section of the first movement and for the fine momentum he generates in the finale after a properly suspenseful transition from the third movement. In between the Romanze is beautifully done while the Scherzo is vigorous and strongly rhythmical with the trio elegantly phrased.
Excellent though the Schumann is, however, Cantelli and the orchestra seem to step up at least one more gear for the Debussy. As Mark Kluge points out in his useful notes, Le Martyre de Saint Sebastian was an unfamiliar score in those days - it’s still not aired too frequently in the concert halls of today - so it was an enterprising choice by Cantelli who presents the four-movement suite extracted from Debussy’s complete score by André Caplet. Right at the start of ‘La Cour des lys’ the cool, poised woodwind playing is a delight and a thing of wonder. Indeed the whole movement is exquisitely sculpted and controlled by Cantelli. In his hands there’s marvellous life in ‘Danse extatique’; the music seems airborne. In the following ‘La Passion’ Cantelli, helped by some wonderful playing from the Philharmonia, produces a very special atmosphere. One can only admire the way in which this supremely gifted conductor controls the lines and the textures. The final movement, ‘Le Bon Pasteur’, offers arguably the best performance of all. The opening pages feature music making of the greatest possible subtlety and refinement, not least from the woodwind and horn principals. With super-soft string playing as well, the fragile beauty of Debussy’s writing ravishes the ear. There’s a bit of distortion of the loud chords near the end but this can’t detract from a memorable performance.
The reading of La Mer is simply fabulous. Time and again Cantelli’s infinite care for detail, balance and colour is evident. Yet this is no pedantic rendition of the score; it’s a real performance with the sweep of the music thrillingly conveyed. In the second section of ‘De l’aube à midi sur la mer’ you can really feel the surges of the sea at times while elsewhere the poetry of the music is beautifully conveyed. ‘Jeux de vagues’ benefits from a significant number of moments of individual brilliance on the part of several of the orchestra’s principals. The performance as a whole is distinguished by lots of light and shade. The final movement, ‘Dialogue du vent et de la mer’, is vividly projected, especially the last three minutes or so. It’s a most exciting account of the music; no wonder the audience goes wild at the end.
As I said earlier, even if you have some or all of Cantelli’s studio recordings of these works don’t pass by this release. Any duplication is worthwhile. This concert must have been a memorable experience with a great conductor leading an orchestra on sovereign form and we are indeed fortunate that the recordings have been preserved. Apart from short spells of distortion at the very end of both Debussy works the sound is pretty good; the recordings wear their near-six decades pretty lightly. The incandescent artistry of Guido Cantelli is communicated vividly through these three magnificent performances.
John Quinn
The incandescent artistry of Guido Cantelli is communicated vividly through these three magnificent performances. 

Masterwork Index: Schumann 4 ~~ La Mer