BERLIOZ: Romeo and Juliet (broadcast performance and rehearsal excerpts) The Damnation of Faust (excerpts)
Gladys Swarthout, mezzo-soprano; John Garris, tenor; Nicola Moscona, bass; Mack Harrell, bass (Faust); Chorus/NBC Symphony Orch/Arturo Toscanini, cond.(Romeo and Juliet broadcasts Feb. 9/16, 1947; rehearsal Feb . 1947)
GUILD GHCD 2218/19 (3 CDS) (M) TT: 79:02 / 77:43 / 71:49
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GUIDO CANTELLI - The NBC Broadcast Concerts - January 1951 & December 1951
ROSSINI: The Siege of Corinth Overture. BARTOK: Concerto for Orchestra. SCHUBERT: Symphony No. 2 in B flat. GHEDINI: Concerto dell'albatro. VIVALDI: Concerto in A minor, Op. 3 No. 8. BRAHMS: Tragic Overture, Op. 81. DEBUSSY: Le martyre de Saint Sebastien - fragments. STRAVINSKY: Fireworks. MOZART: Symphony No. 29 in A, K. 201. The Marriage of Figaro Overture. GILLIS: Prairie Sunset. MENDELSSOHN: Symphony No. 4 in A, Op. 90 "Italian." RAVEL: Pavane pour une infante défunte. La Valse.
NBC Symphony Orch/Guido Cantelli, cond.
TESTAMENT SBT4 1336 (4 CDs) (F) (ADD) TT: 48:27 / 51:16 / 75:23 / 48:50
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TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74 "Pathetique." Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture.
Philharmonia Orch/Guido Cantellli, cond.
TESTAMENT SBT 1316 (F) (ADD) TT: 61:44

Had Guido Cantelli (b. April 27,1920) not been killed in an air crash near Paris on November 25, 1956, he would still have been younger today than Toscanini, his American sponsor, when the latter retired from conducting. He, rather than Leonard Bernstein, would have succeeded Dimitri Mitropoulos as music director of the New York Philharmonic-Symphony (as it was then still called) in 1957-58. On the basis of copious documentation from air-checks, broadcast tapes, and commercial recordings (chiefly for EMI) before his death, he would have emerged Gold Medalist in the international podium pentathlon, leaving Karajan, Bernstein and Solti to battle it out for Silver and Bronze. Cantelli, however, was more than Toscanini’s “discovery” or “creation”: it was La Scala’s storied postwar direttore, Antonio Ghiringhelli, who brought him to the elderly Maestro’s attention in 1948, and EMI’s savvy Walter Legge who furthered his career abroad with discs. Toscanini’s stateside sponsorship, in fact, was in some ways detrimental; a good many rank and file players in the NBC Symphony and NYPSO were dubious about Cantelli’s extraordinary gifts until he proved himself under fire, as it were. I’ve never forgotten a Carnegie Hall rehearsal sometime between 1951 and ‘53 when the NYPSOs disregarded his very clear beat in the finale of Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler Symphony – the first measure has nine string tutti of irregular length. Over and over they misplayed until Cantelli unwittingly ran the baton into his left palm, severely enough that he began to bleed, but was oblivious of the wound until concertmaster John Corigliano stopped the playing and led Cantelli offstage to be doctored. By no means, however, was the rehearsal canceled; after a break Cantelli remounted the podium with bandaged hand and finally the strings not only followed his beat but played as one. From then on, like a gored matador, he had the respect of that most hardened stateside orchestra – indeed, the temperamental equivalent of Vienna’s famously obstinate Philharmoniker.

There have previous Testament issues of Cantelli broadcasts and recordings, including NBCSO broadcasts from December 1950 on 4 discs, and another from 1949-55 on 2 discs, in addition to single re-releases of British studio sessions. In 1995, Music & Arts issued a 4-for-the-price-of-3 CD collection of NYC performances between 1949 and ‘55: although listed as Volume I, there never seems to have been a follow-up. Meanwhile, EMI Testament has added this newest volume of NBCSO performances from January and December of 1951, with the promise of documenting Cantelli’s entire NBCSO career. All originated in NYC’s Manhattan Center on 34th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues – a site chosen by NBC when the company decided to transform Rockefeller Center’s 8-H into a TV studio (thereby liberating the NBCSO from an asbestos-lined acoustic coffin it had used since December 1937, with occasional runouts in Carnegie Hall). The latter had been sought as an alternative, but broadcast bookings conflicted with the NYPSO which called Carnegie home from 1891, the year of its opening, until the move to Lincoln Center’s catastrophic Philharmonic Hall in 1962. There were Carnegie concerts before NBC disbanded the NBCSO in 1954, but Manhattan Center became home-base starting in 1950 (over Toscanini’s violent objections, but he was getting very old by then). Then and later it served as a regular recording venue for Columbia/Sony and RCA, and a versatile one, too.

These 1951 Cantelli performances obviously benefit from the change; they are not as reverberant as Carnegie, but clean, clear, and in Paul Baily’s remasterings damn-near state-of-the-art mono on good equipment. However, Testament’s reissues are almost self-defeatingly pricey – this 4-disc set lists for $76 at Arkiv: in other words $19 per disc. When the first and fourth of them have under 49 minutes of music on each, and third CD only 51:16, it seems that Testament could have arranged the contents on three discs, albeit out of sequence. But the performances in all but one case are variously gorgeous – that one case being a startlingly unstylish, Puccini-esque performance of the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra (not only perpetuating Boosey & Hawkes’ original misprint of the second-movement tempo and metronome-marking but stretching a 5:59 movement in Reiner’s Chicago remake of 1955 to 7:01). Mortimer Frank’s sycophantic program note takes a gratuitous swipe at Reiner’s pioneering 1946 Pittsburgh recording (when the second movement was 5:57), but then ol’ Mort(ician) never was a Reiner fan. Fortunately, Testament’s Tchaikovsky single disc with the Philharmonic Orchestra has a text by Robert Matthew-Walker.

Some of Cantelli’s 1951 NBC repertoire was repeated in subsequent years as well as on LPS, but one shouldn’t mind owning, for instance, more than one of his performances of Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony, or Debussy’s “Symphonic Fragments” from Le martyre de saint Sébastien. I know of at least three Rossini Siege of Corinth Overture recordings by him, but 1951 is the most rigid. For me, the prize is his Santa Cecilia recording from Rome, done with inimitable swagger although the sound is harsh by comparison. In the 1951 Testament set, Giorgio Ghedini’s murky Concerto dell’albatro (after “Moby Dick”), for violin, cello, piano and narrator is musically the least interesting, but Cantelli’s performance is that of a loving pupil, even if Ben Grauer’s narration is announcerly, to coin an adjective. But the delights elsewhere are manifold, not least a beguiling performance of producer Don Gillis’ Prairie Sunset, an elegant reading of Mozart’s K. 201 Symphony, a Ravel Pavane of extraordinarily delicate gravity, and a vertiginous La valse. If you have $76, I’d say invest, and add that the commercially recorded pairing of Tchaik’s Romeo and Juliet and “Pathétique” Symphony from London’s Royal Festival Hall are marvelously detailed readings without sacrifice of muscle-tone or Russian “soul.” These, too, are mono recordings – Legge was stubborn holdout at EMI – yet tonally vivid as remastered by Baily. If the presence of an audience was a spur to Cantelli, he was hardly less than a master – the next Maestro, indeed – in the recording studio. Still, I’d start with the 1950 collection, issued in 2003, because of the repertoire and side lengths, but devotees of the art of conducting without idiosyncracy should give thanks that so much of Cantelli’s singular art has survived his terrible and untimely death.

As for Toscanini’s Roméo et Juliette “Dramatic Symphony” from 1947, resuscitated on the British Guild label, it was the first complete recording of the music ever issued, although Toscanini had conducted it once previously in 1942 as a guest with the New York Philharmonic (and as far back of 1896 wanted to perform it at Bologna but was denied funds for the second part). In February 1947, he repeated it during two one-hour NBC performances on tandem Sundays, filling out the second week with excerpts from Le damnation de Faust, in which Mack Harrell sang Mephisto’s Serenade (“Devant la maison”) – but you really have to hunt the notes to find the first name of the tenor in Roméo – John Garris, murdered mysteriously in Atlanta in 1949 – which the cover and scene-breakdown on the last page of the program book omit. RCA issued this performance on two LPs but the sound was shockingly bad Studio 8-H. Guild’s remastering isn’t going to win prizes but at least it allows us to hear the music and many of Toscanini’s nuances in an historic performance. In 1953, Charles Munch remade Roméo at Boston in early stereo, one of the first such, but nowhere a performance on Toscanini’s level of identification or intuition, even at age 80.

There have been several since over the years but none – yet – on the level of Toscanini’s penetration or energy. Gladys Swarthout was a voluptuous-sounding if rather monotonous soloist in Scene One, but Garris did the “Queen Mab” scherzetto with engaging deftness, and Nicola Moscona made an imposing Friar Laurence in the final scene with chorus. This is a truly historic document with musical felicities unending, despite the sound, in yet another “broadcast legacy” of Toscanini’s almost 17 years with the NBCSO. The text of Roméo is complete, but nothing for Damnation. There are rehearsal takes from the latter as a bonus. Let me say this1947 broadcast was my introduction to Berlioz’s “Dramatic Symphony,” hardly known except for a very few excerpts on 78-rpm discs, and it came as thunderbolt from Jove on Olympus, as it must have been to listeners across North America on those two Sunday broadcasts during the frigid February of 1947 where I lived and listened.


R.D. (September 2004)