CONRAD WILSON looks at a unique set of recordings showing the triumphs and disasters of the Festival classical scene

AS a title for what should be a remarkable souvenir of the Edinburgh Festival's first 50 years, Archive Recordings seems accurate, but distinctly dry. Behind these afternoon sessions at the Queen's Hall - 18 of them in all - lies more than a dip into sounds of the past. Each, as the brochure puts it, is a ''unique historic document,'' ranging from Guido Cantelli conducting Debussy in 1954 to Sir Alexander Gibson presiding over the Scottish premiere of Mahler's Eighth Symphony with the newly-formed Festival Chorus just 11 years later.

Each event, naturally, was more than a performance. It was an occasion, an atmosphere, something seen as well as heard. And it marked a special point in time, enabling Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, as we knew it before Klemperer conducted it in 1957, to become the work we would thereafter always hear - those of us, at any rate, lucky enough to have been there - with Klemperer's monumental interpretation in mind.

Great festivals provide many such memories. Some of them - such as the Bruno Walter Song of the Earth in 1947 or the original version of Ariadne auf Naxos conducted by Beecham in 1950 - are being commemorated this year in new performances, which will contribute further to the history of these works. This is as it should be. Though we all like to think that some performances are unsurpassable, there are more ways than one of treating a masterpiece. All the same, the lack of a memento of the Leningrad Philharmonic's first Edinburgh visit, when it was hailed as a secret weapon of orchestral technology, does seem regrettable.

Yet inevitably much of what we hear in any one year, memorable though it may seem at the time, turns out to be chaff. Fernando Previtali's abbreviation of the slow movement of Schubert's Tragic Symphony in the opening concert of the 1953 festival was rather worse than that. It was an act of mutilation no conductor today would get away with.

So what are the qualities that turn Edinburgh's 18 archive recordings into ''unique historic documents'', as the festival would have us believe? Cantelli conducting The Martyrdom of St Sebastian two years before his death in a plane crash will certainly test the validity of the statement. Did this romantic young Italian deserve his reputation at Toscanini's nominated successor? Or was his repertoire too restricted to enable him to make his way in the modern world? He was certainly not irreplaceable, as was claimed when he died, but I recall his concerts with the Philharmonic Orchestra - the authentic original Philharmonic Orchestra created by Walter Legge - as being very special indeed.

Fritz Wunderlich's singing of Beethoven and Schubert will be another sad tribute to what might have been - he died in a domestic accident a few weeks later - and it is easy to see why Maria Callas, looking as slim as Audrey Hepburn in La Sonnambula at the King's Theatre in 1957, bestowed unique historic value upon that haunting Piccola Scala production. But Bernstein self-indulgently conducting Sibelius's Fifth Symphony in 1975? Joan Sutherland applying her decorative artifice to the sweet nothings of Haydn's Orfeo ed Euridice in 1967? Well, we shall see.

Sir Thomas Beecham's performance (alas now incomplete) of Brahms's Second Symphony with the Royal Philharmonic in 1956 was another matter. This was undoubtedly an occasion in every sense. The work, whose unfurling closing fanfares suited him to perfection, was understandably the conductor's favourite piece of Brahms. But the performance, for those who heard it, is bound to be remembered within the context of the concert whose climax it formed.

The first half had opened with Sir Arthur Bliss's Edinburgh Overture, one of the festival's well-intentioned but hardly memorable commissions of the period, conducted by the composer himself. Having dispatched this with, as some critics complained, the wrong accent on the orchestral stimulation of the name of the city, Bliss then proceeded to conduct his own interminable violin concerto, leaving Beecham to rescue the evening with a sizzling account of the Brahms.

No doubt with one of his cries of: ''Come on brass, give 'em hell,'' he ensured that the finale wiped out all trace of Bliss's efforts. But the great conductor had already, by that point, engaged in a little private mischief that had put him in the right mood for the second half.

Arriving backstage while Bliss was still conducting, Beecham found the clothes of the Master of the Queen's Music strewn all over the dressing-room floor. An attendant was summoned to fling them into the corridor. Then, with nothing else to occupy him, Sir Thomas decided to move upstairs to watch the performance from the side door of the platform, where various members of the orchestra spotted him, his eyebrows raised in monstrous disdain.

Bliss, aware of the distraction but not knowing its cause, went on doggedly conducting. It is with this in mind that we should listen to Beecham's Brahms next Wednesday, and remember his Edinburgh appearances, conducting not only this, but the most zestful imaginable Hadyn, to have been something truly irreplaceable.