GUIDO CANTELLI - The NBC Studio Recordings (1949-1954)
HAYDN:  Symphony No. 93 in D (rec. March 2, 1949).  FRANCK:  Symphony in D Minor (rec. May 6, 1954).  MUSSORGSKY-RAVEL:  Pictures at an Exhibition (rec. January 23, 1951 & February 25, 1952).  HINDEMITH:  Mathis der Maler - Sinfonie (rec. January 13, 1950).
TESTAMENT SBT 2194 (2 CDs) (F) (ADD) TT:  59:58 & 58:06

Cantelli (1920-56) was Toscanini's last protégé, beyond challenge the most distinguished after Victor de Sabata. In his brief career, delayed by military service and internment during World War II, audiences transatlantically cheered and cherished him before his death in a plane disaster following takeoff from Paris' Orly Airport. News of the tragedy was withheld from the 89-year-old Maestro, who died less than two months later (although family members said he intuited it).

Toscanini "discovered" Cantelli in 1948 at a post-season orchestral rehearsal in La Scala, where he was being nurtured by music director De Sabata and superintendent Antonio Ghiringhelli. He was invited to make his U.S. debut on January 15, 1949, with Toscanini's NBC Symphony Orchestra. On March 3, he recorded the Haydn 93rd Symphony from that program in RCA's notoriously unreverberant Studio 8-H—the first of only four recordings he made for the "shaded dog" label before NBC disbanded the orchestra in 1954, following Toscanini's abrupt but not untimely resignation in mid-April. (The ensemble survived briefly as the self-governing Symphony of the Air, gave a few concerts in Carnegie Hall, and recorded with Stokowski, but lack of corporate underwriting doomed it.)

Cantelli also conducted the New York Philharmonic over a five-season period, and was en route to a return engagement when he died (but not the first musical celebrity to perish in an Air France crash; in 1949 the violinist Ginette Neveu and her accompanist-brother died, along with boxer Marcel Cerdan, Edith Piaf's last love, in a midflight disaster over the Atlantic). The Philharmonic's canaille kept on giving him a hard time, however, until Cantelli stabbed his left palm with a plastic baton during the tricky, 9-beat measure that begins the last movement of Hindemith's Mathis der Maler Symphony. I was at that rehearsal (in either 1951 or '52) as the guest of Vittorio Giannini and his wife Lucia. The wound began to bleed but Cantelli was oblivious until John Corigliano, the concertmaster (father of composer John Jr.), leaped up to help the suddenly weakening maestro.

Cantelli would not call off the rehearsal, however; after his hand was treated and bandaged, he continued. Then the NYP played for him. Had Cantelli not perished, he rather than Leonard Bernstein was short-listed to replace Dimitri Mitropoulos as music director. Ironically, Cantelli had been named to succeed the ailing De Sabata as music director of La Scala just a week before his death.

But he recorded only once with the NYP, then the exclusive property of Columbia (later CBS, now Sony) Masterworks -- Vivaldi's The Four Seasons, with Corigliano Sr. as soloist, in 1955.  Cantelli belonged to RCA and EMI, partners until the latter company was acquired by Capitol, and repackaged stateside as Angel Records in 1953. He recorded more with Walter Legge's London-based Philharmonia Orchestra on EMI than with the NBCSO; the four works in this set are the sum of his RCA repertoire, two of them made with producer Richard Mohr and engineer Lewis Layton, whereas John Pfeiffer and engineer Leslie Chase did the simultaneous, two-channel recording of Franck's Symphony's on April 6, 1954, just one month after stereo-taping Fritz Reiner's Heldenleben and Zarathustra (by Strauss) in Chicago.

Here isn't the place for details, but Mohr's recent seasons as quizmaster on the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts were an amiable coda to an outstanding career as RCA Red Seal's foremost producer of classical repertoire following the retirement, or whatever, of Charles O'Connell. We're only now finding out, through 20-bit and 24/96 digital remasterings on CD, just how protean his and Layton's collaboration was. One needs to read small type at the bottom of page 4 in the Testament program book (with excellent notes by Harris Goldsmith) to discover that Paul Baily produced these stunning remasterings at EMI's Abbey Road Studios.

You can take or leave the Franck, as music, but Cantelli's is a noble conception, without the usual rhetorical bloat or mauve icing (which the piece already suffers from), and will stay on my shelves because, dry acoustic or no -- and many worse came out of Studio 8-H -- the coupled Haydn is immaculately played and impeccably stylish, albeit without repeats. Here Mohr's engineer was Fred Lynch, and his co-producer LeRoy Shields, names I don't know but whose collaborative proficiency is admirable. For the Hindemith Mathis (January 13, 1950) and Mussorgsky-Ravel Pictures (January 23, 1951, retouched on February 25, 1952), the recording site was Carnegie Hall, and never has it sounded more on discs like a great concert hall than here. Pictures was a Toscanini specialty, but Cantelli remained his own person interpretively (with a greater appreciation of nuance throughout), and furthermore coaxed a performance of remarkable coloristic variety and subtlety from The Old Man's NBC players.

In mono sound as spacious as any that Legge produced with the pre-stereo Philharmonia in that orchestra's abbreviated prime, it is one of the Very Great Pictures -- to be kept alongside Reiner/Chicago, and played often, which is not to say it's a galérie I visit often. I learned Mathis from Hindemith's 78s with the prewar Berlin Philharmonic (issued stateside after the war by Capitol, in one of those handsome, heavy-duty maroon albums reserved for Telefunken performances). But Cantelli's reading remains as cogent and thrilling as any I've ever heard. It was on his NBC debut program in 1949, repeated in 1950, and again -- as noted above -- played later on with the NYP. There's more "theater" and less Teutonism in his reading than in the composer's (which Hindemith re-recorded 15 or 16 years later). It was RCA's replacement for Ormandy and the Philadelphia, who had jumped to Columbia several years earlier, a performance I never heard as Victor album M-855 -- only remakes for Columbia and Angel -- but one that Irving Kolodin, as late as the International Guide to Recorded Music, continued to favor over the composer's own from 1934.

Testament's CD reissues are pricey, and the lack of any more material limits this set to a total time of 118:06. But when performances are of Cantelli's caliber, it is worth saving up for. He was 12 years younger than Karajan, eight younger than Solti, and two younger than Bernstein, yet had he lived would surely have bettered all three. Carlo Maria Giulini took Cantelli's place post mortem without filling his shoes, nor have Abbado, Muti or Chailly since, for all their respective expertise. Daniele Gatti has yet to demonstrate he's in the same league as any of the latter maestri, leaving us to hope that Antonio Pappano fulfills the promise of a few superb recordings to date, and carries on what Cantelli achieved in his cruelly brief lifespan.

R.D. (Nov. 2000)