VITTORIO GUI

1885-1975

It’s not my habit to lunch with countesses, but some years ago thanks to the insistence of a wealthy friend my wife and I found ourselves at table in a minor Florentine palazzo, just across the street, behind a handsome wall, from the railway station goods depot, served excellent gnocchi and roast chicken by a white-gloved retainer. “I tried to get Muti to join us,” exclaimed the countess whose family had been friends of Puccini. Well, I wouldn’t have been surprised to encounter Vittorio Gui, that natty maestro generally photographed behind dotted bow tie and expensive double breasted jacket. As aristocratic looking a chap as you could find, Maestro Gui dressed by Fratelli Brooks. And yes, there was something aristocratic about his conducting. Only that’s just the half of it because he could set a raging orchestral fire with the flick of his baton, make an orchestra do a DOUBLE ZAP in an instant. Gui enjoyed a good dramatic phraseological romp all right, meanwhile he always kept the musical furniture absolutely in place.

Seemingly contradictory elements produced Gui’s penetrating style. On the one hand his performances had a certain formality, a sculptural quality, as if like a master confectioner he’d applied a full set of finishing touches to an elaborate pastry, possibly that awesome Meditazione, a sinfonia of gustatory panache sold on the high street in Perugia. But within this care in packaging his expressivity never sat still, he was ever ready for a new emotion, a spontaneity observed, as in the overture of his landmark Cetra recording of Bellini’s Norma from ’37, in which finality, yearning, delicacy, swagger, warmth, each in succession, becomes the new, fresh and inevitable face of the music. Music that seems to repeatedly flower anew.

Stand in the magnetic field of Gui’s genius and there are many rewards: a Parsifal from the Rome Radio 1950 (in Italian with Maria Callas and Boris Christoff!) which is at times so startlingly luminous as to suggest the sonic equivalent of sun-baked stained glass . . .  a throbbing Aida from the same source a year later in which neat sequences of despair gather themselves like folds of a cape into a spacious rise to the prelude’s final climax (and the dance of the priestesses in the second scene is so stately the music’s nose is very high in the air indeed) . . . and a Naples Nabucco from ’49 (also with Callas) in which the first fortissimo of the overture sounds a veritable Red Alert, and the virgins’ chorus in act 1 so suggestive of Roll Out the Barrel is taken quite slowly but even in relative repose achieves a tremendous intensity.

On the symphonic front there’s a Mozart Prague from the Fifties with the Glyndebourne Festival Orchestra (Gui was almost as identified with those Sussex innings as Fritz Busch) and a very rare Brahms Third, just post-war I think, with the orchestra of the Florence May Festival. The Mozart seems ideal, the opening adagio achingly beautiful, positively Gluckian in its solemnity, the succeeding allegro clean, joyous, majestic. The Brahms has a volatility about it suggesting Toscanini – but, one has to ask, which Toscanini? Too bad the performance misses its footing on the opening page with a rather snappish surfeit of staccato where Brahms has indicated portato — is an incorrigible punster allowed to say, “I say staccato you say portato”? — the result a mechanical ambience in the big first theme that shortchanges the desired passionato. But that “misjudgment” out of the way Gui goes on to give us an airy, searching movement 1, a warm-toned andante with probing second subject, a near-tearful intermezzo, a windswept finale. All is on course.

Ah, Glyndebourne. There’s a broadcast from Edinburgh of the company’s Ballo in Maschera in ’49, Gui establishing his trademark handsomeness of articulation before the curtain is up. Yes, Gui makes his orchestral bed with hospital corners. And his gift for characterization is quickly apparent: the tenor’s first aria has an easy monarchical swagger, but if this is a playboy king, well surely he had a governess who taught him all about rhythm, how to dot your phraseological i’s and cross those t’s. Thanks to restrained tempo and dynamics and almost dainty phrasing the baritone’s Alla Vita sounds conversational, as if it were being sung to the tenor rather than the audience – but it’s okay, of course, for them to overhear!