Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger:

Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No.8 in C minor (Ed. Haas)

Hallé Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli
(Royal Festival Hall, London on 20th May 1970)
BBC LEGENDS BBCL 4067-2 [73.58]
  AmazonUK   AmazonUS  Amazon recommendations

One day Sir John Barbirolli was flying into Houston with André Previn. The plane hit turbulence and the passengers were bucketed around, subjected to climbs and dives to terrify the most seasoned of flyers. At one point in the ordeal Sir John leaned over to Previn and whispered: "I can't die yet. I haven't done all the Bruckner symphonies." We associate Sir John with Mahler, Elgar and Vaughan Williams especially, but maybe it was only the absence of recordings that prevented us from identifying him a little more than we do with Bruckner who he conducted quite often. He gave the Seventh Symphony in New York as far back as 1939. Predictably the New York critics and public hated and misunderstood it. He conducted the same work in Manchester in 1947 and, over the years, the Third, Fourth, Eighth and Ninth Symphonies were also added. The Berlin Philharmonic also played the Seventh and Ninth under him. But he was never asked to record any Bruckner commercially. Perhaps the presence of Otto Klemperer at EMI had something to do with that. It was the release of this 1970 "live" performance in 1997 on the old BBC Radio Classics label that reminded people of Sir John's prowess as a Brucknerian, but as that didn't last very long in the catalogue no one could be blamed for having missed it. Now here it is again and it is to be hoped more will buy it as it offers a different perspective on this work than perhaps we are used to.

Barbirolli was almost unique, certainly of his generation, as a conductor who approached Bruckner from outside the usual performing tradition for this composer. If when considering Bruckner conductors of his generation you round up "the usual suspects" (Knappertsbusch, Furtwangler, Klemperer, Horenstein, Jochum, Wand etc.) you find they all come from within a broad Austro-German tradition that can trace back ancestry to the men who knew Bruckner himself. Barbirolli, on the other hand, an Englishman with Italian and French parents, came to Bruckner unconnected with any of the past practices. Indeed he once said of Bruckner's Seventh "I find a great affinity with Elgar: not in actual music, of course, but in loftiness of ideals and purpose, richness of melodic line and harmony, and even an affinity of defects." This last comment is particularly fascinating and he went on to elaborate: "The over development, sometimes to the point of padding, the sequences, etc., but all very loveable and to me easily tolerated and forgiven in the greatness of it all." So a fresh approach to Bruckner is what you must expect and it is an interesting fascinating performance for all manners of reasons.

First and most obvious this is "live" with all the benefits this can bring in tension and risk-taking but with few of the drawbacks. There is an occasional brass fluff, a few platform thumps, a cough or two from the audience, but nothing serious. The Hallé are not the Berlin or Vienna Philharmonics either, of course. They're a little wanting in tone from the brass and the strings, though this might have a lot to do to do with the recording source, and the brass sound is very "North of England". I like it, but don't expect golden-toned Vienna. More importantly, their rapport with Sir John was by this time almost instinctive so there's a definite feeling of security in their corporate response and in their commitment that only thirty years of his influence could have brought about. Give me that against beauty of tone any time. As an interpretation this is not what you might expect from Sir John. Overall it's quite a quick performance. He gets through the work in under seventy-four minutes which is almost eight minutes faster than Horenstein recorded sixteen weeks later at the Royal Albert Hall who takes eighty-one. (A wonderful performance, by the way, also available on BBC Legends BBCL 4017-2 and also reviewed by me at the time of release.) Like Horenstein, Barbirolli uses the Robert Haas edition of the score so the time comparison is valid.

Though the first movement is kept along at a flowing tempo, more allegro than moderato, Barbirolli is able to be expressive within it, especially in the string writing. In fact it's possible to hear that unmistakable way he had with rubato that he had to teach other orchestras but which his Hallé players knew without being asked but without losing any of the symphonic argument. Indeed there is about this performance the feeling of debate and argument being prosecuted. This is quite an edgy, febrile performance, helped by the piercing trumpets and creepy woodwinds. The scherzo is quite fast too. I don't like this movement taken too slowly, as Karajan did in his first EMI recording, but I do prefer a little bit more solidity than here. Horenstein is supreme in this movement for me, striking the happy medium. One thing that does help with Barbirolli taking a fast approach to the main scherzo material is that the trio is able to sound more relaxed, even though I was aware of the clock ticking beneath.

By the adagio Barbirolli's overall approach is clear. Again just that bit faster than we are used to, but slower enough when compared with what has gone before for it to sound an adagio in relation to the other movements. Now we can hear that this is a really "thought through" performance, stressing drama and tension rather than spirituality. This is Bruckner with all his complexes rather than Bruckner with his Bible. However, don't get the impression Barbirolli is trying to be something he isn't. Anyone hearing the way the unison cellos play can recognise that that it is him conducting. I bet in rehearsal he even seized one of the instruments and played it for them. The lead up to the great climax is the only place where he abandons his overall tempo approach, speeding up dramatically, then slowing down, then speeding up again before the brass blaze and the cymbals crash. The last movement then seems to reflect the three that have gone and I was also impressed by the power of the brass especially. Barbirolli's tempo makes the whole movement hang together well, but within that his expressive moulding of melody and his singing line does add emotion to the drama. There are also one or two rhetorical touches I suspect he wouldn't have done in the recording studio. But this is not a recording studio. This is music making with an audience.

This was Barbirolli's last ever London appearance and he died ten weeks later. It was a Royal Philharmonic Society concert of a performance he and the Hallé had already given in Manchester and Sheffield. The Hallé was therefore coming into London well rehearsed and determined to show London a thing or two under the old man. It was a long concert too. The Bruckner was imaginatively preceded by Elgar's "In The South", and that can be heard on another BBC Legends release. (BBCL 4013-2). The recorded sound is what you expect from the Royal Festival Hall in that it's close, bright and detailed with little reverberation. The brass are a touch "pinched" full out and high in their registers too, but that may be the recording source not helping. Generally the sound is a touch bass shy but there is a good stereo spread with nice balance to the woodwind. When the 1997 BBC Radio Classics issue came out it was revealed on the Barbirolli Society web site that the source of the recording used was the indefatigable Paul Brooks who recorded it at home on the night of the broadcast because the BBC no longer had their own tape. This new issue also thanks Paul Brooks for his assistance. This and my own ears tell me this is the same source tape but, unlike the tape used for the BBC Legends issue of Barbirolli's "live" 1966 Bruckner Ninth (BBCL 4034-2, coupled with Mahler's Seventh), the quality is high. Those who have the earlier issue of this Eighth will want to know if there is any appreciable difference in sound. In spite of the fact that a different engineer has been responsible for the remastering, a comparison doesn't reveal any real difference to my ears. Maybe there is a minute gain in body in favour of the new issue, but that seems to be all.

BBC Legends have taken to adding the following words to their liner notes: "BBC Radio 3's live broadcasts have made this series possible and with a continuing commitment to live transmissions is already creating the legends of tomorrow." This is music to the ears for those of us who value "live" performances and more power to the world's premier broadcaster in this. However, remembering that the BBC had to use a private "off air" tape to make the present issue, and many like it in the series because they no longer have their own originals, it is to be hoped they will look after the recordings they are making today much better. That they won't, in thirty years time, again be reduced to making public appeals for tapes made in people's homes. But BBC Legends have certainly done us proud by releasing Barbirolli's and Horenstein's Bruckner Eighths from 1970. The previous year Reginald Goodall gave an astounding performance of the same work at the Proms. May we hope that too will appear in time?

The last of Barbirolli's summer wine and a rich vintage.

Tony Duggan

Return to Index

Reviews from previous months
We welcome feedback on our reviews. Please use the Bulletin Board.  Please paste in the first line of your comments the URL of the review to which you refer.This is the only part of MusicWeb for which you will have to register.

You can purchase CDs, tickets and musician's accessories and Save around 22% with these retailers: