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Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Symphony No.1 in C minor Op68
Symphony No.3 in F major Op90
Philharmonia Orchestra/Guido Cantelli
rec. 1953/55, Kingsway Hall, London
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview
BEULAH 3PDR47 [77]

The recent slew of reissues by Beulah of recordings by Guido Cantelli have tended to focus on his prowess in Spanish and French music so it is good to welcome this disc of music from the very heart of the core symphonic repertoire.

Cantelli’s conception of these works is broad and grand but there is a toughness and leanness which makes these performances sound surprisingly modern. There is more than a hint of Toscanini about the opening movement of No.1 which is no bad thing. Cantelli shares with his celebrated compatriot a fondness for letting the big melodies really sing which mitigates against the risk of the music sounding too hard driven. The moderate tempi allow Cantelli time to properly articulate the rhetoric in this first movement without it acquiring a sense of someone trying too hard. I greatly enjoyed the way he lets the reins go slack enough to enjoy the beautiful second subject group but not so much that we lose the sense of tragic menace lurking in the background.

It practically goes without saying that the Philharmonia live up to their reputation during this period. The woodwind are quite exceptional in the slow movement of No.1 and I doubt I have heard such rock solid string sound in the same work’s opening pages. One of the characteristics of Cantelli’s conducting was a tight grip on the line of the music and the Philharmonia plays like an orchestra with absolute confidence in the man on the podium. (The irony of course being that the same orchestra went on to record equally wonderful Brahms with Otto Klemperer who exemplified the opposite of clear direction though an equally firm sense of purpose!)

The lack of fuss about Cantelli’s Brahms reminded me at times of Ticciati’s supposedly iconoclastic slimmed down recording with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra thereby demonstrating that there really is nothing new under the sun. That said I found that Cantelli penetrates further into the dark, mysterious heart of the piece than his modern rival. The tension in the final pages of the finale of No.1 is expertly drawn out and the result crowns an exceptionally fine interpretation.

The original recording was clearly expertly produced and sounds as good as it has ever done on this new release. For once with Beulah’s Cantelli series there is very little to choose between the newcomer and EMI’s own remastering as part of one of their Icon boxes devoted to the conductor.

The third symphony brings a different kind of challenge and Cantelli’s toughness might seem initially less appropriate. Like Szell’s slightly later version, it has the feel of stripping away Romanticism to get at the more classical or even more modernist framework of the score. This is a somewhat long winded way of saying that if you want the ripe and autumnal in this work, best look elsewhere.

The Philharmonia, most notably the woodwind, balance out this more driven conception of the symphony with some of the most tender and plush playing it has ever received. I doubt the Philharmonia have sounded more like one of big Mitteleuropa bands.

The sense of impetus, perhaps even impatience, is deepened by the then ubiquitous ignoring of the first half repeat in the opening movement. This is a darker score than its reputation suggests and the fiery climax of this movement spells this out and the almost Wagnerian transition to the recapitulation nails Cantelli’s colours decisively to the mast in this regard.

The Philharmonia clothe his straightforward and direct way with the slow movement in rich, burnt umber. It doesn’t take long for the shadows to deepen, a mood that carries into a third movement full of sorrow.

Unsurprisingly, the finale bristles with energy though not as ferociously as it did under Furtwängler. Cantelli’s conception is grander than the older German conductor’s. He is much straighter in the glorious fade out which ends the symphony. This was the only point where I felt that Cantelli’s directness left me feeling a little shortchanged. Surely a little nostalgic indulgence is called for in these pages?

As with the first symphony, there isn’t a lot to choose between this incarnation and the version included in the EMI Icon box. The original engineers did a better job in the first place with the later symphony. Beulah’s sound has a little more presence and clarity – the double bassoon’s all important contributions much more clearly audible. This seems to suit the way Cantelli sets about both symphonies.

These are dynamic accounts of both works which give a very clear sense of the direction Cantelli was heading – less fat on the bone, more muscle but without severing links to older more traditional approaches. I found the first more convincing in this regard than the third though taken together they provide a most effective introduction to the more serious side of Cantelli. In Beulah’s typically bold sound and at Beulah’s usual value for money price point, it can be recommended with enthusiasm.

David McDade

Published: November 3, 2022

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