Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Guido Cantelli’s Tchaikovsky Set


As we prepare our remaining two installments of the Tchaikovsky festival begun last week, I wanted to provide a point of comparison between the Mravinsky “definitive” performances and a separate set, which you can sample for free on Public Domain Classic.
The Italian conductor, Guido Cantelli (1920-1956), was both the youngest and shortest-lived of the world-class conductors born between 1908 and 1920, a remarkable group that includes Herbert von Karajan, Georg Solti, Erich Leinsdorf, Carlo Maria Giulini, and Leonard Bernstein.
You can read Cantelli's biography here.
Guido Cantelli had a stellar but brief career as a conductor, championed by Toscanini who had begun looking for a younger associate to keep the NBC Symphony Orchestra (created for him in 1938) on course during his absences. He arranged for the young conductor's immediate NBC debut on January 15, 1949. Afterwards, Time magazine featured a profile likening him physically to Frank Sinatra, but musically to Arturo Toscanini. Until NBC disbanded the orchestra in 1954, Cantelli conducted there annually, beginning with four but expanding to eight programs. In 1951 he made the first of five annual appearances as a regular guest-conductor of the New York Philharmonic along with Bruno Walter and George Szell.
Such was his reputation that he was set to take over the New York Philharmonic at the end of Dimitri Mitropoulos’ tenure. La Scala formally named him music director in November 1956. One week later, a Lineo Aereo Italiano plane from Milan to NYC crashed following a stopover at Orly Airport near Paris. Guido Cantelli was not among the survivors. His untimely death opened the door for another rising star, Leonard Bernstein, to take over the New York Philharmonic. Arturo Toscanini died two months later without being told of Cantelli's death.
Among the few surviving documents of his short career is a set of the Tchaikovsky symphonies recorded “in concert” at Carnegie Hall with the NBC Symphony. (http://www.archive.org/details/PeterIlijcTchaikovskyTheLastThreeSymphonies, embedded player below - all 12 tracks)

I must say that I quite enjoy his readings of the Symphonies. Yes, the recording technology and the “russianness” of the Mravinsky set are far superior, but we have here a genuine interpreter, who understands the darkness and pathos that Tchaikovsky brings to these works. In 2009, Keith Bennett writes this about Cantelli’s recording of the Pathetique symphony:

There are instances when the tragedy of Cantelli’s brief career registers with overwhelming force and this is one of them. Cantelli performed this symphony on just six occasions and it is worth a moment’s thought that Karajan made more commercial recordings of this symphony (seven) than Cantelli gave actual performances. Cantelli first conducted the symphony on 27 July 1945 at an open air concert during his first appearance with the Orchestra della Scala and his last was this performance with the NBC Symphony Orchestra on 21 February 1953 […].Cantelli fully understands the emotional implications of the score which he conveys without resorting to exaggerations: the demands of expressiveness are met without hysteria, tempi are well-judged in all four movements, and the harrowing despair of the final movement is admirably portrayed. All this is true of the live performance with the NBC Symphony Orchestra.
I think these are well-worth listening to, and comparing to the Mravuinsky set I chose. If you are "budget conscious" (read: looking to get free music), this set fits the bill rather nicely.



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