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Cantelli conducts French Music
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Prélude à L’Après-Midi d’un Faune [9:16]
Nocturnes: 1 & 2 [12:50]
La Mer [22:50]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Daphnis and Chlöé: Suite No.2 [15:22]
Pavane pour une Infante Défunte [6:06]
Paul DUKAS (1865-1935)
L’Apprenti Sorcier [10:29]
Philharmonia Orchestra/Guido Cantelli
rec. 1952-53, Royal Festival Hall and Kingsway Hall (Daphnis)
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview
BEULAH 1PDR47 [73:23]

The next time I read a critic – possibly myself – writing about the notorious difficulty of recording in the Royal Festival Hall, I am going to direct them toward this recording. I am equally sure that the technical team responsible would have regaled us with stories about the acoustic horrors they had to overcome but the result is luminous and never more so than in this new issue on Beulah.

There is a distinct advantage of gathering most Cantelli’s recordings of French music on one disc though I can’t help regretting the absence of his account of Le Martyre de St Sebastian. It is already a generously filled disc without it.

In anticipation of reviewing this Beulah release, I had a listen to the 2012 reissue of this material by EMI in the Icon box devoted to Cantelli. I thought the sound on that version was excellent and unlikely to be topped by Beulah. I was wrong. Comparing the two, the EMI sound is more recessed particularly in the numerous passages for woodwind in these colourful scores. The brass on Beulah have been considerably brightened and, particularly in La Mer, the lower brass have gained in amplitude (and in that Debussy score, in menace). The EMI sound is admirably clear but Beulah’s has a richness that adds considerably to the enjoyment of a piece like L’Après-Midi. These were always splendid recordings from a technical point of view and the level of detail Beulah have found in them is a listening delight. The harps in the second movement of La Mer stand out in a way they do in few modern recordings but without any sense of artificial spotlighting. In the big climaxes – the end of La Mer is tremendously exciting sonically – the sound opens up beautifully without a hint of overloading. Only in the opening Dawn sequence of Daphnis do we really become aware that we are listening to such an old recording but here again Beulah trump EMI – it is like a fine veil has been lifted off the sound picture.

Obviously these are classic performances that,I think, show Cantelli at his best. The surprise hit for me is an electric account of Dukas’ Sorcerer’s Apprentice. The dynamism and thrust of Cantelli’s interpretation (you can hear why Toscanini anointed him as his heir apparent) is never at the expense of picaresque detail. It is the kind of performance to remind the listener that there is a lot more to the piece than Disney.

A similar sense of vital propulsion courses through the veins of the second of two of the Nocturnes included. This Fêtes is clearly a riotous affair. I can’t think of another recording of this movement where all the musical elements come together quite so convincingly. Monteux with LSO is Cantelli’s nearest rival but Cantelli is better. The only negative is that we don’t get to hear what he would have done with Sirènes.

La Mer, in Cantelli’s hands, is very much a capricious, cold water sea. The levels of concentration the Italian inspires from a vintage Philharmonia in peak form is something to behold. The brass choir make an awesome noise, all the better for being so beautifully blended.

Cantelli manages to pull off a sleight of hand in that his grip of the melodic line is always iron tight yet it always sings. Listen to the gorgeous string lines in the Dawn movement of Daphnis to hear what I mean. Clearly it has been painstakingly worked over and over but it sounds as natural as Caruso singing a Neapolitan song.

There are many ways of approaching these bejewelled scores from the mellow tenderness of Haitink with the Concertgebouw to the diamond cut precision of Boulez. Cantelli’s recordings belong in that elite list and Beulah have done us a real favour by letting us hear them in such stunning clarity and richness of sound. Many collectors will already have these recordings but this Beulah issue is now the one to have. If you don’t already know them then you are in for a real treat!

David McDade

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