Guido Cantelli’s final U.S. appearances bring potent and lyrical music-making to 1956 Carnegie Hall.
Cantelli: New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra, Vol. 3 = WAGNER: Parsifal: Good Friday Spell; VERDI: Te Deum; MONTEVERDI: Magnificat; HANDEL: Xerxes: Largo; BRAHMS: Piano Concerto No. 1 in d minor, Op. 15; Alto Rhapsody, Op. 53; HINDEMITH: Concert Music for Strings and Brass – Rudolf Firkusny, piano/ Martha Lipton, alto/ Westminster Choir dir. John Finlay Williamson/ New York Philharmonic/ Guido Cantelli – Pristine Audio PASC 523 (2 CDs) TT: 2 hrs 15:36 [www.pristineclassical.com] ****:
As producer Andrew Rose has commentator Keith Bennett state in the accompanying notes, “these two CDs preserve Guido Cantelli’s programs of his last subscription concerts [1 and 8 April 1956] and are valuable for two reasons. First, they contain Cantelli’s very last concerts which he gave in America, but second and more importantly three of the compositions—both of the Brahms and the Verdi—were the first time that the conductor had performed these works.”
From April 1, as part of music “appropriate for the Easter season,” Cantelli leads the Good Friday Music from Act III of Parsifal, in which an enervated Parsifal finds rest in a sunny meadow, and he finds a pantheistic transfiguration that embraces nobility, sorrow, and arching beauty. The notion of “Paradise regained” infiltrates this music, and its resonant use of the “Dresden Amen” motif—co-opted from Mendelssohn—adds to the solemn dignity of the occasion. The Philharmonic string and wind choirs respond alertly to Cantelli’s direction; and here, I like to assume their scintillating response owes much to their then current music director, Dimitri Mitropoulos.
Verdi assembled his Quattro pezzi sacri (1898) in somewhat random order, basing his inspiration upon his fondness for sacred texts of the Catholic Church. The Te Deum (1895) benefits from Verdi’s having studied works by Victoria and Purcell so that his massive sonority would bear some relation to the Renaissance ideal. The “immense father” becomes “the king of glory,” and so Verdi utilizes blazing brass fanfares that will eventually resonate with the idea of “the Judge” who separates the wheat from the chaff. The a cappella, subdued plainchant suddenly explodes into a double chorus of lofty praise, the progression’s evolving from one strict tempo. The “glorious company of the Apostles” will move to a cosmic sense of redemption, and Mankind serves to “magnify” the spirit of the Lord. Cantelli controls the dazzling array of textures and ringing colors with crisp authority.
Brahms composed his Alto Rhapsody (1869) on three stanzas from Goethe’s Harzreise im Winter, sublimating his undeclared love for Julie Schumann in a form similar to a tripartite Baroque cantata set in C minor and C Major: recitative (arioso), aria, and chorus. The main theme, that of a desolate wanderer who seeks consolation, seems entirely consonant with the Romantic Agony we find in Schumann’s Manfred. The passing, jarring dissonances and leaps of the first two sections find relief in the sweet harmonies of the last, hymn-like section. Contralto Martha Lipton (1913-2006) intones her solo part effectively, and the performance as a whole bears up against more famous versions from Kathleen Ferrier, Marian Anderson, and Mildred Miller.
Cantelli performs the Ghedini version of Monteverdi’s 1610 Magnificat for 7-part Chorus and Orchestra and Organ, taken as the last part of the Vespers, a masterpiece of opulent, richly panoramic sound. Set in modes of D Major, the piece finds its unity by maintaining a cantus firmus even in the midst of complicated counterpoint. The plainchant emerges in long notes while soli and instruments realize faster notes around it. Thus, Monteverdi manages a conflict of styles while simultaneously reconciling their differences. At times, the music attains an archaic, stoic, intimate beauty. At other moments, the music achieves a mighty, ornate color spectrum, as dazzling as anything in Vivaldi and Bach, and perhaps even more haunting, especially in this “romantic” interpretation by Guido Cantelli. The colossal blend of voices, organ, and strings quite wakes up the ear and enlarges our musical imagination.
The concert of 8 April opens with Molinari’s arrangement of Handel’s Largo (“Ombra mai fu”) from Xerxes. The plaintive sincerity of the occasion melts our hearts, especially given the fact that Cantelli’s days on earth had already been numbered: he died tragically in a plane crash 15 November 1956. Rudolf Firkusny (1912-1994) joins Mr. Cantelli for the Brahms 1859 d minor Concerto: I must say, at the outset, that Cantelli addresses the opening Maestoso with a grim ferocity – despite the music’s penchant for B-flat – that rises from the low basses well into the trumpets and tympani. Firkusny plays with his patented elegant, aristocrat demeanor, warm – especially in F Major – and clearly articulated in the hands, although much of the writing succumbs to the “symphonic” absorption by the chosen, orchestral textures. In the poised, lyrical sections that rise between the severe, tumultuously momentous periods, Cantelli achieves a reserved intimacy, for sheer contrast. Firkusny quite explodes into the development, his trills ringing and octaves thundering. The wonderful surprise of the waltz-like section, rising as it were de profundis, breezes along until, it too, descends in to the ‘recapitulation” in E Major. The fluid motion of pianist and orchestra continues to the thrilling peroration, the main theme’s having reached an apoplectic intensity, one we at the Philharmonic recall from another such collaboration, between Kapell and Mitropoulos (12 April 1953).
The Adagio movement, often cited as a requiem for Robert Schumann, proceeds by graduated nuances to a passionate climax and a sincere, intimate dissipation of textures, until an airy, nostalgic haze lingers in the air. The energetic Rondo enjoys its moments of contrapuntal learning and even lyricism. The French horn of James Chambers makes its presence felt. Firkusny seems more inflamed at each repetition of the rondo theme, exerting more force than he does in his commercial recording with Steinberg in Pittsburgh. Cantelli elicits a warm, sweeping nostalgia from the Philharmonic strings and woodwinds. The collaborative fervor reaches a fine-pitched intensity, with Firkusny’s massive scales and octaves dominating the palette. The final cadenza, the modulation to a sunny D Major, and the committed authority of the players has made this traversal of the First Concerto a testament to those “fairer hopes” that Cantelli meant to many of us.
Paul Hindemith submitted his Concert Music for Strings and Brass (1930) as part of a series of tributes to the Boston Symphony—celebrating its 50th anniversary—and its conductor Serge Koussevitzky. The piece exerts the usual “brass-band” aspects of the Hindemith symphonic style: vivacious, athletic, mildly dissonant, and leaning to the composer’s love of polyphony. In two movements, the music subdivides into specific sections, given a certain “Germanic” academicism. Cantelli relishes a homogeneity of sound that impresses us first and last. The second movement opens with a brisk fugato held in check by a clear, linear sense of pulse. The brass challenge the strings for dominance, and they often win. The flamboyant syncopation testifies to the orchestra’s discipline, reminding me how successful Cantelli is in a piece like Creston’s Dance Overture. It has been a rousing April concert, and thanks to Andrew Rose, vividly restored.