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Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Semiramide – Overture [12:42]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Op 120 [24:34]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op 68 [42:14]
Philharmonia Orchestra/Guido Cantelli
rec. live, 11 May 1953, Royal Albert Hall, London. Mono ADD

If you read Laurence Lewis’s biography, Guido Cantelli: Portrait of a Maestro, you get a picture of a conductor tortured by self-doubt and debilitating uncertainty about his musical greatness. Lewis describes in detail the almost destructive rehearsals that Cantelli and the Philharmonia Orchestra went through in their early years. The notorious recording session for Ravel’s La Valse in 1951(subsequently abandoned, and a work he never performed with the Philharmonia again) almost derailed the relationship entirely. A 1952 Ravel Pavane took almost eighteen takes to get right, Debussy’s Nocturnes twenty. Cantelli literally burst into tears when he heard the playback of the Schumann Fourth as it was entirely different from what he had heard the orchestra produce in the hall. Their recording of Brahms’s Third consumed more time than any other recording they made.

In one sense it’s quite extraordinary that so many of the Cantelli/Philharmonia records don’t sound over-prepared. I’ve always found their very early Tchaikovsky Romeo & Juliet electrifying, for example – although a live 1952 NBC performance, if not as pristine, is unmissable. He was certainly given ample rehearsal time for his concert performances with the Philharmonia but it’s also true that his repertoire was largely more conservative than it was in New York or Boston, for example. He programmed no American music in Britain, but nor did he programme Stravinsky which was frequently on his American programmes. Haydn and Mozart were much more likely to appear on his American concert programmes, too. Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem appeared in New York but never Britain. Indeed, all of Cantelli’s 1953 concerts with the Philharmonia Orchestra, all performed at the Royal Albert Hall in May of that year, contained exclusively 19th Century music that was familiar to both the conductor and the orchestra. In part, this is why this, although interesting, is not the most compelling of Cantelli concerts to listen to and why the performances of the Brahms and Schumann symphonies, which Cantelli recorded that month with the Philharmonia, are perhaps more mannered and prepared than usual.

Cantelli had a very particular way with Schumann’s Fourth, a world away from the deeply expressive, almost soulful performance tradition of a conductor like Furtwängler. If the great German conductor is brooding and intense, launching the lebhaft section as if it were some improvised, Protean creation, Cantelli is much crisper throughout, projecting the work with more volatility and much less rubato than many conductors. Furtwängler is certainly more interventionist, taking much broader liberties with the music’s shape. Cantelli is almost universally swift – though he takes the time, in the first movement, for example, to get the Philharmonia to make a distinction between tremolando passages with 32nd notes, and those without tremolando, written in sixteenths. If Furtwängler’s Scherzo is full of storm and fury, Cantelli’s has fire in its belly at a blazing tempo. Cantelli is pretty close to the Schneller marking (as he also is in the Philharmonia recording) in the finale’s coda – where most performances slow down. Yet, as deft and glittering as this all sounds, and with pedigree playing from the Philharmonia, one doesn’t feel as if one has been taken on the same epic or visionary journey through this symphony that Furtwängler takes us.

It is a similar story with Brahms’s First Symphony, a work which Cantelli programmed with the Philharmonia more than any other. Listen to Furtwängler in Hamburg in 1951: the massive sonorities, the demonic forces that reverberate throughout the performance, and the unleashing of such volcanic power through its breadth and sweep, are all missing from the Cantelli performance. There is undeniable tension, a fusion of taut rhythms and tonal depth, though an anomaly is that the very opening timpani sound loose to me. Interestingly, and unlike his other, surviving recordings of the Brahms First with the NBC (1952) or the Boston Symphony (1954), the Philharmonia performance sounds much more Germanic in its phrasing. It isn’t so much the blended sonority of the Philharmonia strings as the beautifully vivid phrasing of the flute, horn and trombone solos in the finale. Indeed, according to Alfred Flaszynski, the principal trombone who joined the Philharmonia in 1953, Cantelli had become fascinated by the German-made horns and trombone which the Philharmonia and Flaszynski used and were “so suitable for Brahms”. One welcomes the golden-tone, whereas the American recordings often sound much brighter.

Despite the fact that both the Schumann and Brahms symphonies from this live concert coincided with rehearsal sessions for both symphonies at Kingsway Hall days later, that shouldn’t necessarily indicate that Cantelli treated the concerts as a public rehearsal prior to the recordings. There are remarkable similarities in the performances and recordings, as one would expect, but these are as much to do with Cantelli’s very definitive view on both works performed in such close proximity. But Cantelli’s view of the symphonies clearly evolved over time, too: the slight pause after the statement of the first subject of the first movement in the Schumann in 1953 is accelerated in his New York performance from 1956, and there are also marginally more distinctive tempo changes in the later performance. The Edinburgh Schumann, from 1954, seems to inhabit an entirely different world from either the Albert Hall or New York performances: it’s wild, sometimes incoherent, and driven by Cantelli’s crisp energy in this symphony.

Cantelli’s dislike of the recording medium – and the fact that only a handful of their twenty-five concerts were ever broadcast – makes it difficult to put his partnership with the Philharmonia Orchestra into historical perspective. Shortly after his death, his widow, Iris, said that his love for the Philharmonia was profound and that, “If he could he would stay with the Philharmonia from the first of January to the thirty-first of December…. He loved the Philharmonia”. His working relationship with the orchestra had certainly changed since those first disastrous recording sessions, just as his working relationship with the New York Philharmonic – whose subscription concerts demanded so much from him – was going in the opposite direction. Had he lived, he would have almost certainly divided his time between La Scala and London.

This CD releases what may well be the last broadcast of a Cantelli/Philharmonia concert. There are two further concerts broadcast on the BBC Home Service that have yet to see the light of day. One, from the same series of May concerts performed at the Royal Albert Hall, coupled Wagner’s Overture to Der Fliegende Höllander, Dvořák’s Symphony No.9 and Beethoven’s Symphony No.5 (Royal Albert Hall, May 20th). The second, is a part-broadcast from the 1954 Edinburgh Festival and includes Beethoven’s Symphony No.6 (Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 10th September 1954). Certainly, the 20th May concert would make a most compelling release, if it exists.

Marc Bridle

Previous review: John Quinn



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