Gui was taught to play the piano as a child by his mother, who had been a pupil of Sgambati. Going on to study composition with Falchi and Setaccioli at the Liceo di Santa Cecilia in Rome, he also graduated in humanities from the University of Rome. He made his professional conducting debut in 1907, when he was asked at short notice to conduct Ponchielli’s La Gioconda at the Teatro Adriano in Rome, which he did with success. As a result he was invited to conduct in Naples and Turin, where he came into contact with Debussy in 1911. After World War I, Gui’s career developed significantly. Having been invited by Toscanini to open the 1923–1924 season of La Scala, Milan, with Richard Strauss’s Salome, he conducted there during the 1923–1924 and 1924–1925 seasons, and between 1925 and 1927 was chief conductor at the Teatro Regio in Turin. In 1928, he founded a permanent orchestra in Florence, which he directed until 1943; initially this was known as the Orchestra Stabile, until in 1933 it became the Orchestra of the Florence Maggio Musicale (May Music Festival). Always a keen advocate of forgotten operas, during the 1930s Gui conducted at the Maggio Musicale productions of Cherubini’s Medea, Gluck’s Armide, Spontini’s La Vestale, and Verdi’s Luisa Miller.
In addition he was invited by Bruno Walter to conduct at the Salzburg Festival from 1933 onwards, and, in 1936, he was invited by Sir Thomas Beecham, then in charge of the International Opera Seasons at Covent Garden, to conduct the Italian repertoire, which he did between 1936 and 1939. Complete recordings of Gui conducting Il trovatore and La traviata from the 1939 Covent Garden season have survived, as well as excerpts from Aida at the Vienna State Opera during June 1941.
In addition to being an excellent conductor of Italian opera, for which he was most well-known outside Italy, Gui was also the chief proponent within Italy of the music of Brahms, and during the fiftieth anniversary year of the composer’s death, 1947, he conducted in Italy virtually all of Brahms’s symphonic and choral works. The following year, Gui made his debut with the Glyndebourne Festival Company, conducting Carl Ebert’s production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte at the Edinburgh Festival; and in 1949, he led, in addition to Così, a legendary series of performances of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera, again in Edinburgh, a recording of which has survived.
Following the death of Fritz Busch in 1951, Gui appeared for the first time at the Glyndebourne Festival in Sussex, conducting Rossini’s La Cenerentola as well as Così and Verdi’s Macbeth. La Cenerentola was to be the first of several very popular Rossini productions that he led at the festival, and henceforth he was to appear at Glyndebourne regularly, between 1960 and 1963 also serving as the festival’s artistic counsellor for music. His last appearances at Glyndebourne were during the 1965 season, when he conducted Cimarosa’s Il matrimonio segreto and Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro.
Although by now nearly eighty years of age, Gui continued to conduct in Italy for a further ten years, giving his final concert just two weeks before his death. He was also active as a composer and as an author of numerous articles. Gui is best remembered as a conductor of the operas of Rossini: his accounts with the Glyndebourne company of Il barbiere di Siviglia, Le Comte Ory, and La Cenerentola, all recorded for EMI, have an effortless good humour and buoyancy that few other conductors have achieved. Similarly his recording of Le nozze di Figaro, one of the very first of EMI’s stereophonic opera recordings, has been consistently held in the highest regard.
Apart from these recordings, and several made with the Glyndebourne Festival Orchestra (in fact the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra) of symphonies by Haydn and Mozart and a solitary (and heavily cut) recording made for EMI in Rome of Boito’s Mefistofele with Boris Christoff, Gui’s commercial discography does him less than full justice, consisting as it does predominantly of short works that appeared on American budget labels such as Remington and Omega, and in the United Kingdom on early issues of the World Record Club. More characteristic are the numerous recordings of live operatic performances directed by Gui which have gradually appeared. Especially notable are several from the early years of the career of Maria Callas, including Verdi’s Nabucco with Callas on the verge of her domination of the Italian stage (Naples, 1949); one of the most extraordinary of Callas’s recordings, a radio production of Wagner’s Parsifal, (Rome, 1950); Bellini’s Norma with the young Callas at Covent Garden (1952); and another major Callas interpretation, of Cherubini’s Medea at Florence (1953). Also of note are three recordings with Leyla Gencer: Bellini’s Beatrice di Tenda (Venice 1964), Gluck’s Alceste (Rome, 1967), and Verdi’s Macbeth with Giuseppe Taddei (Palermo, 1960). A fine pre-war recording of Bellini’s Norma, with Gina Cigna and Ebe Stignani, should also be mentioned.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).