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.
Masterwork Index: Schumann
4 ~~ La