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Guido Cantelli at 100: His art, recordings and legacy
by Marc Bridle

Largely, conductors live long lives. Guido Cantelli was not one of them. Born on 27th April 1920 he would die in a plane crash on his way from Orly Airport, Paris to New York on 24th November 1956. He was 36 years old.

Sixty-four years after his death, his reputation remains high; but it is of a huge talent unfulfilled. He is not the only artist of his generation to leave listeners today frustrated; his near contemporaries Dinu Lipatti and Ginette Neveu also died tragically young. Josef Hassid, Michael Rabin – and even Solomon and Christian Ferras – were in one way or another casualties to music earlier than any of them deserved to be. All were special, all were gifted in exceptional ways, but of these musicians perhaps only Cantelli might have changed music in the twentieth century in such a lasting and radical way. Music today would indeed look very different had he lived.

Cantelli is often compared to Arturo Toscanini, but whilst this is not always entirely an accurate comparison, there are many things we might nevertheless take away from this. If Toscanini and Furtwängler may have been the two predominant conductors of the first half of the twentieth century, each representing a particular style of conducting, then it’s probable that post-1950, Cantelli and Karajan might have come to dominate the second half of the twentieth century. Had Cantelli lived as long as Toscanini (or Wolfgang Sawallisch and Stanislav Skrowaczewski who were both born in 1923) he would have been conducting up until almost the beginning – and into – this century. It’s possible that entire decades of the Philharmonia Orchestra’s lauded recorded history would look different than it does, or that Otto Klemperer’s Indian Summer may never have happened – or would certainly be less glorious than it is. European opera might never have been anchored largely at Salzburg and the dominance of Berlin may have been tamed by that of Milan where days before Cantelli’s death he had been appointed music director where he would have succeeded Carlo Maria Giulini. Another view is that, given Cantelli’s volatility and temperament, his career may have imploded rather quickly, or he may have become as elusive, difficult or challenging as Celibidache and Carlos Kleiber would become. But, virtual history is a dangerous game to play though many agree that no conductor, in just seven years of an international career, has ever left such a profound or everlasting impression.

For most listeners Cantelli’s known recorded legacy is small, limited to a dozen or so commercial recordings made – mostly – with the Philharmonia Orchestra during the early to mid 1950’s. Dig deeper, however, and there is an important and very extensive archive of live recordings which begins with his US debut in January 1949 with the NBC Symphony Orchestra – a program which included Haydn’s Symphony Nr.93 (by a long distance the Haydn symphony he most often programmed – rather remorselessly so), and Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler. Cantelli would, right up until his death, conduct almost every season in the United States and more concerts with the New York Philharmonic than with any other orchestra (a figure inflated by the number of concerts in the subscription season which any conductor was contracted to do). Almost all of his NBC legacy is archived, at least twenty of his New York Philharmonic concerts and a handful with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (including a memorable Verdi Requiem ). Of the 28 concerts he gave with the Philharmonia Orchestra, only four of those are definitely known to have been broadcast on the BBC World Service and in the case of the Edinburgh Festival concert from 10th September 1954, only the Beethoven Symphony Nr.6 from a concert which also included Wagner and Hindemith. His final concert with the Philharmonia – a Verdi Requiem from the Royal Festival Hall – is one of those lost masterpieces and a significant change of direction for the conductor who had begun at this stage of his career to lose audience traction because of the repetitiveness in his programming.

Cantelli’s repertoire was deeper than his commercial discography – and especially his London concert programs – would suggest. Indeed, his wife, Iris, has written that Cantelli had memorised a huge number of scores, possibly in the hundreds. Because the Philharmonia was a recording orchestra rather than a concert one, when they did play concerts works on the program were often – though not exclusively – in preparation for a recording session; Cantelli, Karajan and a whole roster of EMI artists performed this way during the 1950s. In the case of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra – which Karajan took three years to record – Cantelli would rehearse the Philharmonia for concerts in October 1952 and Karajan would do the studio sessions in November; how far that 1952 session reflects just one, or both, conductors would be fascinating to know. The end result doesn’t give much away – and nor does the huge amount of time Karajan took over it, for that matter; it is still the benchmark recording it always was. Cantelli enjoyed more latitude at the Edinburgh Festival and these Philharmonia concerts were a joy for him – though he also claimed to prefer playing in the Usher Hall over the Royal Festival Hall.

Cantelli’s very first concert at the Usher Hall had been something of a triumph – Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony with the La Scala Orchestra, in its first post-war concerts given outside Italy. Described at the time as having “Divine Fire” Cantelli proved an early sensation even though he wasn’t the main draw of the orchestra’s tour – that was Victor De Sabata. In September 1950, Cantelli and the orchestra played the Tchaikovsky in London, with electrifying results. The conductor would go into the studio to record the symphony with the La Scala Orchestra but given time restraints it was done in a single day. Many like this performance; others do not. I find that this recording lacks excitement, and it sounds extremely cramped. Cantelli brings little spontaneity to this symphony; I suspect the studio conditions blindsided whatever gestures of energy and fire he tried to elicit from the orchestra in a search for perfection he could never meet in a single take. The sense of frustration is written all over this performance, though were it a composer other than Tchaikovsky it would stand out more than it does here. The La Scala recording is further disadvantaged by a comparison with the NBC Symphony Orchestra Tchaikovsky Fifth from March 1952; here Cantelli has all the passion and brimstone of a Toscanini.

Cantelli’s shortcomings and his inspiration in the recording studio exposed a dichotomy which was both dangerous and fascinating. It was also one which bordered on the psychotic. In October 1951 he recorded Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll with the Philharmonia. Put down on tape during a single afternoon, there is a purity to this interpretation which is rather magical. The strings have a soft sheen to them – polished, clean and wholly disciplined. The woodwind of the Philharmonia play with exceptional warmth of tone and brilliance. What this recording, for all its glories, masks is the complete disaster of the morning session when Cantelli and the orchestra attempted to record Ravel’s La valse. Cantelli dissolved into such an uncontrollable meltdown that the entire recording was aborted. Cantelli would never play the work again with the Philharmonia. The tightrope producers and orchestras had to walk with this conductor were often fragile. His frustration would result in volatility – something which the players of the New York Philharmonic were unwilling to bend towards, but which the players of the Philharmonia were more able to meet in the name of art. With one orchestra he would begin to diverge, whereas with the other he would converge. Ironically, he got electrifying performances from both despite being pulled in separate directions.

His relationship with Toscanini is, I think, a bit more complicated than many people have assumed. He first saw Cantelli conduct in May 1948 at a concert at La Scala and saw in the twenty-eight-year-old conductor a mirror image of himself. However, I’m not sure if Cantelli’s very first concerts with the NBC Symphony orchestra, which Toscanini invited him to conduct in January 1949, were as a box office draw or intended to impress Toscanini. It wasn’t so much the Franck D minor – a work of great difficulty shrouded under a layer of cunning simplicity – or the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra which Toscanini neither liked nor understood which would prove the complication.

However it is viewed, it is something which, I think, drives a wedge through the Toscanini/Cantelli love fest. Cantelli’s whole approach to music – his extensive rehearsals, his embracing of contemporary composers (like Bartók, Busoni and Hindemith) and the daily routine Cantelli spent memorising scores ­– left Toscanini with the impression that Cantelli was heading in the wrong direction. The view from his London orchestra, however, was that Cantelli lacked experience – or this was the suspicion of the Philharmonia’s principal flute player, Gareth Morris. The two men – coincidentally born just twenty days apart (Cantelli was the elder) – would clash throughout the entire time they worked together. A different take on it would be that Cantelli – like Szell – was a conductor looking for a fight. Where Karajan would build bridges, Cantelli would either pull them down or pull up the drawbridge entirely.

Indeed, Cantelli’s response to dissent in the ranks of the orchestras he conducted or in the search for the perfect recording was perhaps a surprising one. Often described as mild-mannered and gentle, Cantelli could be the opposite. Those violent outbursts, often directed at certain players in an orchestra, were closer in style to the great European conductors who had emigrated to the United States – Fritz Reiner, George Szell or Artur Rodzinski. The iron fist was perhaps worn with a velvet glove rather than the boxing glove which a Szell or a Rodzinski used to crush their players into submission but Cantelli was more than capable of imposing his will on his players and with a Toscaninian disregard for personal emotion.

Those demands were frequently unforgiving; he was often simply oblivious to what a player was capable of. The search for perfection in the Philharmonia’s recording of Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante defunte was entirely destructive – there were almost twenty takes, with Cantelli failing to recognise the demands it was making on the principal horn, Dennis Brain. The end result is a recording which did not satisfy the conductor and the splice in the performance shows the toil exerted for what is an excruciating six minutes of music. The August 1955 recording of Brahms’s Symphony Nr.3, as beautiful and exceptionally warm as it is, was completed over five difficult days. Where Cantelli, almost without fail, would take the first movement repeat here he does not. This is a performance which is on the cusp of greatness, however, and one which invariably succeeds where so many of Toscanini’s failed. Despite the missing repeat this is Cantelli’s broadest view of this symphony; his 1951 NBC Brahms Third is almost hasty and rough edged in comparison as many of those American broadcasts would tend to be. Yet, with the Philharmonia he would produce a Brahms Third which moved from summer into autumn and was as ravishing in its tone as any ever made. The woodwind are almost blushing.

Brahms was one of Cantelli’s strengths but his 1953 C minor Symphony can be imposing and inclines towards being overly expressive and dramatic. I’ve never particularly warmed to how Cantelli takes the opening of the first movement – somehow it sounds just a little too curt, a little too urgent. On the other hand, he gets the most astonishing weight of sound from the strings without ever compromising their blend of colour. You would never guess from this recording that there was a personality clash between Cantelli and Gareth Morris, either; the flute playing is beyond sublime, but then the woodwind playing is of a standard on this record, and almost all the Philharmonia recordings made with Cantelli, which out-rivals all of those which we have from the United States.

Of all British orchestras it is the Philharmonia which has long had that exceptional closeness to the music of Debussy and Ravel. Their polycephalic sound – Italianate under some conductors, Germanic under others – could sometimes create a tension in how this orchestra responded to some of the music they played. It’s probably no coincidence that the two recordings which caused Cantelli and the Philharmonia the most difficulty were by Ravel. When they got this composer right the results were of exceptional quality; when they got them wrong the breakdown was volcanic.

The recording of Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe Suite Nr.2, made over sessions in 1955 and 1956, is astounding. It could have sounded like it is patched together with stitches of perfect size, in the same colour and with the same thread. That it doesn’t sound as painstaking as the two sessions – so far apart – suggest it should is down to Cantelli’s ability to bring out so much of the work’s sensuality and intimacy. Hearing this performance you are swept along in a headrush of colour and cinematic brilliance. If any recording Cantelli and the Philharmonia made is so tragic it is this one because it so vividly captures why this partnership was destined for the age of stereo.

The Milan Tchaikovsky E minor might not have been an unqualified success but the two recordings he made with the Philharmonia of this composer tell a different story. The Overture to Romeo & Juliet from October 1951 and the Symphony Nr.6 from October and December 1952 are both distinguished by sharp, dynamic playing. In each case there is at least one NBC performance of each piece to compare with the Philharmonia recording – a R&J from 1952 and the Sixth from 1953. The 1951 Romeo & Juliet sits between two sets of Cantelli sessions which were not notably successful: the Mendelssohn Italian and the notorious Ravel La valse.

I have known the Cantelli Romeo & Juliet since it was first played to me as a child and it is still by a long distance my favourite version of this piece. It’s true that the engineering and sound has never done many favours to either the orchestra or Cantelli’s vision of this work – it is muddy, at a rather low level and too often bleaches out colour in a piece that so often needs it. Even Warner’s most recent remastering on Compact Disc– done this year, and in 192kHz/24bit – doesn’t entirely do much to improve the picture (although I recall the old EMI Great Recordings of the Century release as being reasonably successful). But the performance and playing are simply staggering – Harold Jackson’s trumpet at 12’05 (through to 12’18) is rapier-like, and unmatched on any other recording of the work I have come across. HMV’s sound may fail on many levels but not in how it manages to induce the terror of Jackson’s trumpet slashing through the orchestra – or like an ice pick stabbing you in the neck, as I seem to remember at the time. You will, I think, have difficulty finding another recording that has the brilliance and character in its woodwind playing; they paint a picture that you can see before your eyes despite the limitations you sometimes hear. But this is a performance where you should let your imagination run riot a bit – the orchestra is already rampaging through Tchaikovsky’s score, throwing pages from it as if torn from Shakespeare’s play. I don’t recall another that manages to convey a family at war quite so successfully as this one. It’s internecine. Cantelli, notoriously difficult to please with how the harp was captured on his recordings, seems to have had no problems with this Romeo & Juliet. Renata Scheffel-Stein, who would often be reduced to tears by Cantelli’s obsessive search for perfection on the instrument, gets everything as Cantelli clearly wanted it. What is also striking, and so typical of a Cantelli recording, is that fabled string sound, especially in the cellos and basses. The love music on this Romeo & Juliet is played with astonishing passion, almost unusually so for a British orchestra from this period. Some have complained of the lack of punch in the timpani on this recording and there is some truth to that – especially when compared to the 1952 NBC recording – but better remasterings over the years have generally improved this, if never quite perfecting it. I generally dislike Pristine’s ‘fake’ stereo but the life it brings to this Romeo & Juliet is thrilling. If there is one Cantelli recording to own it is this one.

The October and December 1952 Tchaikovsky Sixth is, in some ways, a very different kind of Tchaikovsky recording than the orchestra’s Romeo & Juliet. The playing is unquestionably superb, but whereas Cantelli’s Romeo & Juliet knew exactly what kind of recording it would be the Sixth never quite sounds this way. It doesn’t lack excitement – but nor does it have the kind of kinetic fire which Furtwängler brought to this symphony. Whereas his Romeo & Juliet had been spontaneous ­– even explosive –Cantelli’s Sixth seems much more in the mould of Toscanini – a performance that sounds controlled, even micro-managed. The orchestra’s first eruption in the Adagio – Allegro at 8’49 doesn’t sound so much the explosion it should be rather a very neat set of hugely accurate bar lines where every note is defined by its very precision. Even waltzes sound four-square. Quite how this performance ever manages to have the sharp definition and superb lyricism it does when Cantelli is so intent on letting us hear everything Tchaikovsky wrote is a minor miracle. But, when we get to the symphony’s final movement something changes and we are in the hands of a God. This Finale is one of the two or three greatest ever put down on record – the singularity of the music’s arc is a thing of genius: it sweeps over you like gentle snow until it buries you like an avalanche. You might struggle to hear the gong (6’54, surely a problem with the sound rather than Cantelli’s desired effect). In every other respect this is a magnificent nine-minutes of music in what is otherwise a flawed performance.

It’s a pity that only two of Debussy’s Nocturnes were recorded by Cantelli and the Philharmonia because they are exceptional jewels in this conductor’s Debussy crown. His way with Debussy was as it was with Ravel: a concentration on atmosphere, and a focus on every detail of the music until it revealed itself like the fully opened wings of a butterfly in bright sunlight; there is complete transparency, every note and phrase is rendered to perfection. What you get in the Nocturnes is a ravishing – almost poetic – reading of the music and taken very closely to Debussy’s score markings, notably in Fêtes. Cantelli did not include Sirenes in his Philharmonia recording, and neither did he include the piece in any of his performances in New York.

Only Cantelli’s Philharmonia La mer is known to widely exist – a New York broadcast of a disastrous performance given in March 1954 now difficult to find – though I find it incomprehensible that some people enjoy this performance at all. The Philharmonia La mer is immaculate, impeccably played as if the orchestra is making lace it is so delicate. There is a perfection that never sounds mechanical; it’s a performance that manages to steer the course between stormy waters (how magnificently those waves wash inwards) and yet retain such rich lyricism and astonishing range of orchestral colour. Cantelli must have revelled in the haunting, almost icy harp playing at 7’15 in ‘De l’aube à midi sur la mer’ just as the diffuse textures of the woodwind would in their poetic playing have appealed to his temperament. As much as La mer is a work which should be ripe and awash with colour Cantelli’s, I think, does something quite unique: I’m often reminded of Hitchcock’s adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca when I hear this performance and on no other. There is so much danger in that monochrome, more than a thousand different colours could ever say, especially in some of the work’s bleakness: You can almost taste the salt and sand in your mouth on this recording, and if there are surging passions they emerge with danger and ruthlessness. Carlo Maria Giulini would come to make one of the great recordings of La mer, with this same orchestra, and it would have none of the terror you hear in Cantelli’s unique version of the piece. This is, in fact, a La mer which makes one wonder what Cantelli would have made of Britten’s ‘Four Sea Interludes’ from Peter Grimes because it has some of that horror bubbling and swelling beneath it. Britten, however, never appeared on Cantelli’s UK programmes – indeed, he performed the composer almost everywhere else, including with the New York Philharmonic in the Sinfonia da Requiem and La Scala where he would give the Milan premiere of the same work.

Cantelli had an odd devotion to Debussy’s Le martyre de Saint Sébastien which is not one of the composer’s great works, and which Cantelli did not record complete either. The conductor has a gift of making second-rate music sound exceptional and he does that here – the piece makes an impact dramatically, its small scale far outweighing its size with an almost symphonic power that Cantelli brings to it. The playing is sumptuous, whole phrases lingering with a sultry eroticism. The 1951 NBC Symphony recording is not quite as sensuous – the acoustic of Studio 8-H is far too dry to bring any colour to the orchestra – but there is no lack of magic to the performance.

The two Beethoven symphonies which Cantelli made with the Philharmonia in May and June 1956 – both in stereo – were almost certainly intended to be part of a complete cycle. I can’t say I really enjoy either. Karajan had completed his cycle in July 1955, with the Ninth in Vienna, and Otto Klemperer had begun recording Beethoven with the Philharmonia in October and December 1955 (the Eroica, Fifth and Seventh) and the Große Fugue in late March 1956. Intended or otherwise, Cantelli’s Beethoven sounds incredibly heavy, almost mortally so – the Seventh especially with all the weight and imposing structures of a performance that sometimes sounds uncomfortable. If his New York Philharmonic Sevenths (from 1953 and 1955) have the fervour of a live performance – both can, and do, sound a bit more expansive at times, and are prone to get a bit lost in the direction they are traveling – the Philharmonia Seventh, despite its weight, has a fleetness which keeps the performance focussed. I’ve heard more profound Allegretto’s than the one we get here, and the brass can sometimes tune in and out in the Allegro con brio. The coda is an exhilarating ride to the finish in what, I think, is a Seventh that tries to be great but falls slightly short of the mark.

The incomplete – unfortunately missing the all-important first movement – Fifth is a torso and even with what we have sounds as if it would have lacked drive. The rehearsal is interesting because I think what we end up hearing in the three movements we have is pretty identical to what Cantelli was asking for from his players. It possibly confirms the impression that Cantelli could be inflexible in the recording studio. This Beethoven Fifth is imposing in the run through; and it’s imposing in the end result. I think we are largely better served by the December 1950 NBC Fifth, or even the one from February 1954 with the same orchestra.

There are works which featured on Cantelli’s Philharmonia concerts which would undoubtedly have made it into the recording studio – Schubert’s Ninth, Tchaikovsky’s Fourth, Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, Dvořák’s Ninth, Respighi’s Pines of Rome and Mussorgsky/Ravel’s Pictures at an Exhibition. The Mussorgsky/Ravel he conducted in the United States more than any other work – and programmed it on his last Edinburgh Festival concert with the Philharmonia in 1954, the only one not to have been broadcast. We have to turn to the NBCSO recording from January 1951 – one of his earliest performances of the work – to hear how he approached this piece. There is, I think, a nobility to this Pictures, and it’s an unusually tense performance for a young conductor which doesn’t sound at all relaxed. But there is method here because Cantelli unleashes a catastrophe of horror that is shattering – the sheer precision of the NBC Orchestra jabbing at the throat with psychotic bows against strings, the pristine brass playing, the hellish timpani. Noble it may be, but the rawness is at times shocking and Cantelli’s vision of this work would reach a kind of frenzied zenith with the New York Philharmonic in a broadcast from January 1955.

There are some works which Cantelli played in very early Philharmonia concerts which he appears never to have programmed again, or to have never attempted to have recorded: Ravel’s Bolero, which the orchestra played on October 8th 1952 and, most notably, Richard Strauss’s Tod und Verklärung which featured in Cantelli’s third concert with the orchestra (when he also played his only Sibelius piece as well, The Swan of Tuonela) on 10th October 1951. The loss of the Strauss is almost calamitous given the sheer quality of the broadcast with the New York Philharmonic from 21st March 1954. Some of the playing might stetch one’s listening slightly – the coarseness of the solo wind playing, especially – but the drama of the performance is thrilling and Cantelli clearly knew how to balance an orchestra in Strauss. You only have to listen from 16’01 to the close of this performance to hear how Cantelli builds up the tension so inexorably and takes the New York Philharmonic with him in such a singular, breathtaking arc. The guiding light here is Furtwängler not Toscanini. By today’s standards the performance is swift – a little over twenty-two minutes – but it is so effortlessly timeless. It is simply wonderful to hear. I suspect, however, Cantelli and the Philharmonia would have made a glorious recording of it.

Don Juan , also with the New York Philharmonic, from one of his last performances with the orchestra, from a broadcast given on either the 23rd or 25th March 1956 shows conductor and orchestra in full flight. The volatility of this Don Juan is quite shocking in places (try the build up from 13’27 onwards) and leaves open to interpretation the relationship between the conductor and the orchestra. At times I am not sure I know of a more passionate Don Juan on record; at others it is one that seethes with more anger and bitterness than almost any other as well. The very premature applause at 16’17 may well be justified for what has preceded it but the following few bars are almost even more cataclysmic. It’s a fascinating performance of a Strauss Don Juan which is absolutely one of the very greatest ever made but almost certainly one of the last performances that Cantelli would have made with the New York Philharmonic if he had lived. This was not a partnership which was destined for a happy future despite the often incandescent quality of the music they would often produce together.

It wouldn’t surprise me if many listeners found Cantelli’s live 19 th March 1954 Bolero with the New York Philharmonic a little underwhelming. Very swift, at just over thirteen minutes, it’s one of those performances which never quite builds up tension; this is a Bolero that never flows like lava, it never grinds relentlessly, and its militarism outstays its welcome quite quickly. Others might disagree, however. There is impressive weight to the New Yorker’s strings and there is no doubting the rigid tempo which Cantelli keeps which like it or not is in line with Ravel’s thinking; the general pacing probably is not, however. You can, however, catch a thrilling La valse from February 1954 with the NBC Symphony Orchestra which is played with exquisite touch. It’s makes one regret the missing Philharmonia version even more.

Dukas L’apprenti sorcier was a speciality of Cantelli and we have his Philharmonia version and a notable live one with the New York Philharmonic from 30th January 1955. Cantelli clearly took Toscanini as his blueprint for this work – and wisely so – because no two conductors were better placed to offer finer recordings of this work. The Philharmonia studio recording has greater finesse than any, yet it doesn’t lack excitement either given it was done in a single session on 1 st June 1954. The playing of the orchestra is a study in virtuosity. But there is also power here, rather as if Cantelli is bursting at the walls of the recording studio as he unleashes his orchestra. The New York Philharmonic, if less crystalline in their playing, conjure up an apprentice that is like none other. This is a fabulous performance, dizzying in what the orchestra can do as they mop up every note into a whirlwind of frenzy. Both recordings are magical, among Cantelli’s most exciting, and in a class of their own.

I’ll throw in one grenade – this conductor’s December 1954 Boston Symphony Orchestra performance of Respighi’s Pines of Rome. This may well be one of Cantelli’s greatest American recordings. It showcases the Boston Symphony Orchestra at its absolute greatest; the playing is simply spectacular and the sound (excellent WGBH radio) is wonderfully widescreen capturing some really low frequency bass (notably in the timpani). Many of Cantelli’s US broadcasts are in tolerable sound – the NBC ones quite dry at times – but the Boston ones are rather better caught and this Respighi performance really glows. You certainly hear a much greater clarity in the orchestra – but this is a work which Cantelli really rides with great power. Come to the ‘Pines of the Appian Way’ and the radio waves tremble with the stomping of bass drums and tam-tams and an army of heroic trumpets and flugelhorns pealing beside them. There is a fascinating New York Philharmonic performance from March 1955 (which you can get on Pristine) which is even more volatile and brutal but for me just lacks the precision of this Boston broadcast. Both owe a complete debt to Toscanini and I suspect a recording Cantelli attempted with the Philharmonia would have been of exceptional quality – after all, the one Karajan made was one of his greatest records with this orchestra.

There are many epithets you could throw at Cantelli’s December 1949 performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony with the NBC Symphony Orchestra – thunderous, torrential, shattering. However you choose to describe this concert it is one of the great Tchaikovsky Fourths. It is also, apart from the Philharmonia Beethoven Fifth, one of the only other Cantelli recordings I am aware of which comes with rehearsals (I think there may also be some of the overture from Rienzi).

Cantelli had a close bond with the NBC Symphony Orchestra – something that would only be matched by La Scala and the Philharmonia. Beginning in January 1949, and ending in February 1954, just before the orchestra was disbanded (he would never conduct its successor The Symphony of the Air), a substantial number of those recordings made in Studio 8-H are preserved on disc. Cantelli’s evident frustration at his lack of knowledge of English led to him ‘singing’ through the music he wanted played a certain way (very well if one listens to the rehearsals) – the emphasis he places on the staccato playing of the closing bars of the first movement is one thing he wants and it is notable in the final broadcast. At one stage he remarks, “Gentlemen, it is better undisciplined rather than late.” A comment that may be mildly humorous were it not for the fact that Cantelli’s rehearsals were usually so tense. But in general, the 73 minutes reveal a conductor relatively relaxed in front of the orchestra.

Cantelli rarely turned to choral music – and even less so to opera. A single opera exists, Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte, the first time La Scala had heard this Mozart opera in more than 30 years. It comes from January 27th 1956 and one assumes given the prominence that Cantelli intended to give to La scala that opera would become a much bigger part of his life. It’s probably not coincidental that Cantelli should have chosen this of all Mozart’s operas: its intimacy, its precision and musical geometry all played to his strengths where Don Giovanni or an opera by Verdi would not have at this stage of his career. It is well cast. Schwarzkopf, in her first on-stage Fiordiligi (she had already sung the role in the Karajan/Philharmonia recording), Merriman as Dorabella and Panerei as Guglielmo, both also on the Karajan recording. With so much in its favour, the end result is not especially fresh sounding, however. Tension holds back the singers; they don’t sound particularly comfortable. Whatever gifts Cantelli may have had are entirely eclipsed by the fact this Cosi has cuts (some not due to the opera, but to the transmission), and the recording itself being very poor coming from a television broadcast rather than a radio one. None of what you hear on the Karajan studio recording (the subtlety, the magical sorcery, the translucence or mellifluence of the singing) even begins to make it into this live broadcast; nevertheless, it is widely available as a pure audio recording.

Cantelli only performed Mozart’s Requiem with La Scala and that performance was broadcast on the BBC Third programme from the Edinburgh Festival on September 8th 1950. The cast is exceptionally fine – including Renata Tebaldi and Cesare Siepe. The sound is not ideal, it can become exceptionally muddy at times and there is some left and right ear fluctuation, but this is a blistering performance high on ecstasy and much closer to God than many non-ecclesiastical performances of this requiem aim to be. Not even the sound on this recording can take away the profound experience of hearing a ‘Lacrymosa’ that begins from almost nothing and rises to the greatest spiritual heights to end on the most magical of pianissimos that dies away into complete silence. Recently re-released on JPK in a 2020 remaster in their Historic Series it is worth getting hold of.

Cantelli’s two broadcasts of Verdi’s Requiem are at extreme ends of the market when it comes to availability. I suppose the fact that the 1955 New York Philharmonic performance has been more widely accessible – on AS Disc, and now on Archipel – and can now be downloaded reflects the relative weakness of the performance as opposed to the much stronger one he gave with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1954, despite them being only a few months apart. The BSO Requiem may have also suffered from this orchestra’s tendency to rigorously protect copyright on its performances, and what it chooses to release to the public, something which it is much more successful at doing than many other orchestras in the United States. I can recall it only ever really appearing on an LP, which does absolutely no justice to the superb quality of the broadcast from WGBH Radio.

Sir Beverley Baxter once wrote that the one quality that Cantelli’s performances lacked was sorrow – and that was largely because it had not been something he had experienced in his lifespan. Neither of these Verdi Requiems display it, and neither could they be said to be essentially spiritual performances either, not that this was an emotion that was outside Cantelli’s range. The Carnegie Hall 6th February 1955 Requiem, despite its 78-minute running time, isn’t dissimilar in feeling to the 1954 La Scala Victor De Sabata Requiem with its 95-minute running time. Both have that Toscaninian application of drama, though neither gets close to Tocanini’s idiomatic touches, tension or impact. There’s something rather flabby to the opening of Cantelli’s ‘Dies Irae’, not that inexorable terror we get in the 1940 Toscanini. Cantelli may have been more influenced by Toscanini’s 1951 New York performance with the NBC – he is certainly closer to it in timing, almost to the minute – though this is neither Toscanini at his best, nor a better template for Cantelli to have copied, if indeed he had. Although the ‘Dies Irae’ opens with monolithic weight – and has Cantelli’s trademark attention to the timpani – the traction and space he gives to the remainder of it is largely impressive. Herva Nelli (a Toscanini stalwart), Clara Mae, Richard Tucker and Jerome Hines (whom I very much like on this performance and who gives every inch of his 6’6” frame to his role) are not entirely the most even or cohesive of quartets, with Tucker sometimes sounding – or wishing – he were somewhere else. The sound is generally quite good, although the voices are captured very forward (Tucker notwithstanding, for some reason). Depending on your point of view that this is a broadcast from a New York winter – or just a typical Carnegie Hall audience – the coughing requires some tolerance. There is an ugly track break between the ‘Dies Irae’ and the ‘Domine Jesu’ on the AS Disc which I cannot recall also appearing on the Archipel release. This is a Verdi Requiem that shows Cantelli at somewhere near his best; and pretty essential if you want to hear some blistering bass singing.

The Boston Requiem, from the depths (or perhaps despair) of a Massachusetts winter, given on 17th December 1954 at Symphony Hall, is not just in a different league from the New York performance it is at times a match, and more, for the great 1940 Toscanini. The only singer common to the New York cast is Herva Nelli, fresher voiced here, and much more secure, almost icily so, than she was in New York a couple of months later. Also much more comfortable is the tenor, Eugene Conley. There is much to admire in an ‘Ingemisco’ which manages to follow Cantelli’s carefully detailed orchestral phrasing – the woodwind is delicious and shadowed quite miraculously against the tenor voice like a mirror. A slightly darker tenor than one might normally hear here, it suits the BSO’s timbre ideally – and he effortlessly manages that top note. Nicola Moscona is luxury casting, though I think struggles exiting the ‘Confutatis’ as so many basses do; there is just too much vibrato on the voice for my taste, a little too much instability in the tone. In this respect, I prefer the stentorian Jerome Hines from New York. There are less rough edges to this Boston account and the orchestra plays with an almost angelic beauty of tone. The irony is, for all that refinement and precision, this is a considerably more apocalyptic vision than we get in New York.

Guido Cantelli’s final, unbroadcast, concerts with the Philharmonia Orchestra would also be of Verdi’s Requiem though quite clearly no one knew these would be his final concerts in London. The news of his death shattered the orchestra, which by the middle of 1956 had established a closeness to Cantelli which had been entirely reciprocated. I do not hold the view that Cantelli was to have been Dmitri Mitropoulos’s replacement at the New York Philharmonic; that was always Leonard Bernstein’s destiny. The NBC Symphony Orchestra had disbanded in 1954 and Cantelli’s only orchestral commitments were with the Philharmonic – and those were becoming more and more fractious. If he had any particular reason to continue visiting the United States it would have been because of Toscanini. He died fifty-seven days after Cantelli, who was reportedly never told of the young conductor’s death. In a kinder, more just, world Cantelli’s future would have been in Europe – and very probably Milan and London.

Cantelli’s recorded legacy is exceptionally small, and yet its impact is felt as indelibly today as it was more than sixty years ago. He was on the cusp of the stereo era – and so clearly meant for it – but the very best of his monoaural records are miracles of wavelength and colour, What he left behind many conductors would never reach, or achieve, in much longer careers. I think he raised music to art. In his greatest masterpieces, when you hear the music it is an entirely impressionistic experience – the sensuous lines, the poetry of the phrasing, those notes that diminish into nothing like the painter’s brush leaving its feintest stroke on canvas. Laurence Lewis describes the Cantelli/Philharmonia Le martyre de Saint Sébastien as a “miracle” and one of the greatest orchestral recordings ever made. Some might argue that his search for perfection made his recordings too pristine and lacking in freedom but this is rarely borne out when you listen to many of them: his Romeo & Juliet and L’apprenti sorcier are frenzied, almost riotous, and entirely defy the studio conditions under which they were made. You will find details in almost all of Cantelli’s studio recordings you will rarely find elsewhere; they are timeless, and this is really what his legacy is. Its size hardly matters; Cantelli’s handful of greatest recordings sits alongside those by conductors with far larger ones – Toscanini, Furtwängler, Klemperer.

It is sometimes said that Cantelli had a morbid curiosity about death, not least his own. Sir Beverley Baxter, the theatre critic of the Evening Standard wrote as the conductor left their final meeting it was for his “rendezvous with death”. And so it proved to be.

We cannot say what Guido Cantelli would have become with the maturing years. He will not grow old as we grow old. He lived in the springtime and the early summer of life and was never to know the dying autumn – tinted leaves and winter’s sleep of death .”

– Sir Beverley Baxter

A brief Guido Cantelli Discography

The commercial recordings: Philharmonia and NBC SO

Cantelli’s commercial recordings – those which he made for EMI and Angel with the Philharmonia, the Franck D minor with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, and on CD 1, the La Scala and two Santa Cecelia recordings – are now to be found on Warner. Replacing the Icon: Guido Cantelli set which was released in 2012, Warner have re-released a new 10-disc set, remastered in 192kHz/24bit sound from the original tapes. There is nothing new on this set, but the sound is an improvement and this is now the default choice for Cantelli’s commercial recordings. A nice touch is that each CD sleeve has the original ALP cover. Should you upgrade from the Icon set? Unless you are an absolute Cantelli completist, or want his recordings in the best sound on Compact Disc, probably not.

To complicate matters, Warner also issued these performances earlier in the year as Hi-res downloads on various platforms but not, it seems, as the complete sets on all of them. On Presto, for example, you are able to buy all fourteen albums, with the Hi-res downloads costing just over £11 or on Qobuz for £9; on the American HD Tracks – inaccessible to the UK – only seven of them can be bought; Amazon only sell a few of these as mp3. The sound on all of them, however, is exceptional – even the problematical Romeo & Juliet which is no longer as cloudy as it was and has some of the clarity and detail we have been missing. For most the CDs will be more than satisfactory, although audiophiles might wish to try the downloads. The ones I most recommend are the R&J (coupled with Siegfried Idyll) – although on the copy I have the tracks are incorrectly labelled – which may now have been corrected; the fabulous Debussy La mer and Le martyre de Saint Sébastien andRavel’s Daphnis & Chloe Suite Nr.2 coupled with Debussy’s Nocturnes. Some of these downloads are short measure (the Ravel/Debussy is just 28 minutes of music) but the quality of the playing, and the engineering that Warner have put in to making these recordings sound as good as they do justify the price for the best of them. The Philharmonia have never sounded more ravishing or beautiful on these French recordings.

It was once the case that Testament offered a better alternative to the EMI commercial performances. With Warner’s new remastering, they have now been superseded; I also find little value in recommending Pristine’s transfers of these studio recordings, which, in any event, are incomplete.

The live recordings: NBC SO, NYPO, BSO, Philharmonia

This is a bit of a minefield and in one sense the listener will have to scavenge and hunt for many of Cantelli’s live recordings.

Two substantial boxed sets have appeared – and disappeared – of Cantelli’s NBC and New York recordings. The first was on Music & Arts, a 12-CD set simply called The Art of Guido Cantelli, New York Concerts and Broadcasts (1949 – 1952). When this set originally appeared in 2003 it claimed to include 10 hours of previously unpublished music which, at the time, reflected the scarcity of this conductor’s concerts in a widely available distributed set of recordings. This was true, but masked an illegitimate market of cheap labels – the most important of which was AS Disc. It is on these discs – and a few other labels – where you will find some of the rarest of the Cantelli concerts which have not been included on any of the bigger labels (the later New York – the elusive La mer, for example – and some Boston concerts). This Music & Arts set can still be bought and is available from Presto. You can find some AS Discs and other live Cantelli performances on Amazon through third party sellers; eBay is variable.

By far the biggest release of Cantelli recordings was the 23-disc release on Artis. Although the largest part of this set was devoted to the NBC SO, it was more interesting in that it threw in some of the Philharmonia recordings so some incidental comparisons could be made; some rarer concert recordings from Rome, Turin, and Boston fleshed out what would become – and remains – the single most sizeable contribution to the Cantelli discography. This one has disappeared from the catalogue, I’m afraid.

If one is going in search of Cantelli’s NBC concerts then the three Testament boxed sets are one alternative. Cantelli had a wider repertoire than these twelve discs suggest – and, as these 1949 – 1951 NBC broadcasts on Testament show Cantelli had an anachronistic choice of music. The amount of Haydn, Handel, Bach, Mozart, Ghedini, Frescobaldi, Vivaldi, Monteverdi and Rossini can sound punishing when there is so little twentieth century music to contrast it with. But Cantelli programmed this music endlessly with all of the orchestras he conducted so it is almost inevitable it should appear with the frequency it does, especially as Testament is publishing complete broadcasts in a narrow time frame. The Music & Arts boxed set is marginally preferable from this point of view, the Artis set even more so which gives the broadest picture of Cantelli’s art. But, the Testament is valuable in giving us the broadcasts complete by date, even though this limits the CD playing time to under 60-minutes each.

Possibly the best way to approach Cantelli’s live concerts is to look at Pristine’s releases. Although far from definitive, the choice of concerts is quite a fine one, is well chosen, and offers a few of Cantelli’s greatest performances. This shattering 1954 Tod und Verklärung with the NYPO is indispensable (though I have only heard the AS Disc of this). This March 1955 concert, with Cantelli conducting music by Samuel Barber and an electrifying Pines of Rome. Any of the Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts are worth investigating.

ICA Classics have released two Philharmonia concerts with Cantelli – one from the Edinburgh Festival, the other from the Royal Albert Hall. Neither disappoints on an artistic level – the Philharmonia could play with a brilliance and white hot intensity, a level of articulation and precision that was almost fanatically refined and dovetailed to the letter and yet retain a truly romantic sound. Listen to the May 1953 Brahms First and you are swept up in – almost swept away – by a passion which is completely unfamiliar to this composer in so many performances. The 1954 Debussy from Edinburgh is just miraculous. What is just a fraction disappointing is that this is music we know from Cantelli and the Philharmonia already. There were many missed opportunities capturing Cantelli concerts in the United Kingdom – Karajan ones as well – and it was often the musical tastes of producers and the public which would define which concerts were broadcast.

I have two particular thanks, without which this article would not have been possible. The first is to Laurence Lewis the author of the only available biography in English on Guido Cantelli. Without Laurence Lewis’s Guido Cantelli: Portrait of a Maestro (A.S Barnes & Company, 1981) many facts and details of Cantelli’s life would remain unavailable to any of us who wishes to write about him. The second, and most important, is to the many collectors over the years who have allowed me to obtain almost every public performance – many sourced from American radio stations – given by Guido Cantelli.

Marc Bridle, 2020



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