I was very keen to
hear these recordings for two reasons.
Firstly I am a great admirer of Barbirolli
and one who agrees, on the evidence
that Iíve read and heard, that his New
York period was nowhere near as disastrous
as has been claimed in some quarters.
Secondly, I am very interested in the
American orchestral scene in the 20th
century. Furthermore, the main work
on the set is a piece that I didnít
even know had been in Barbirolliís repertoire.
However, although the set is of great
interest there are some significant
caveats to any recommendation.
Barbirolli here performs
the orchestral version of the Petite
Messe Solenelle made by Rossini
himself. I must admit to some ambivalence
about this version. On the one hand
it does add colour and variety to the
piece as compared with the original
accompaniment for two pianos and harmonium.
On the other hand, the orchestral forces
and the full-sized choir that are also
required change the character of the
work completely. It becomes a public,
operatic work; at the première
there was a chorus of just eight singers
besides the quartet of soloists.
The performance captured
here was the American première
of the complete work in this version.
Rossini overtures featured regularly
in Barbirolliís concert programmes throughout
his career and he conducted The Barber
of Seville for the British National
Opera Company in 1928. However, I donít
know if JB had conducted the Mass before
or, indeed, whether it was a score to
which he returned. He conducts with
sweep and vigour and thereís evidence
of some warm orchestral phrasing. The
choir sings enthusiastically. In his
notes London Green candidly admits that
the solo quartet is "a varied group."
To my ears the young Leonard Warrenís
singing is free and forthright but it
sounds a little short on subtlety. Again,
Bruna Castagnaís mezzo is a powerful
voice with lots of presence. Iíll bet
she was a formidable Azucena. However
I would have welcomed much more light
and shade than she appears to offer
here. Charles Kullman sings the ĎDomine
Deusí with an appropriate ring but he
comes across as a pretty one-dimensional
singer. Iíd agree with Mr. Green that
Ria Ginster is the best of the soloists;
she sings with more imagination than
her colleagues. The brief biographies
of the soloists mention their operatic
experience, though Ginster was, apparently,
a noted lieder singer. It did cross
my mind to wonder how much experience
of concert singing, especially in oratorio,
each of them had.
The main drawback to
this recording, is the sound quality.
Itís clearly been a painstaking labour
of patience and love to restore the
original source materials. There is
pretty much omnipresent surface noise
which at its best is like a gauze curtain
in front of the performers. At its worst
- for example at the start of the Credo
(track 8) - thereís an abundance of
crackle and the sound is very distant.
I regret to say that itís a long time
since Iíve been so aware of sonic limitations
when listening to an historic release.
The same is true for
much of the second disc, which is quite
correctly entitled "Barbirolli
Rarities". I wonder, for example,
are there are any other examples of
him working with the Detroit Symphony
Orchestra? Unfortunately, the sound
quality is so very poor that one cannot
really form any judgement at all about
the performances. The orchestral sound
is distant and constricted and there
is a good deal of surface noise. Though
sonic matters are marginally better
in the case of the excerpts from Parsifal
the improvement is, sadly, only
marginal. So once again Iíd be wary
of passing any judgement on the quality
of the performances.
Happily, the Strauss
items are preserved in much better sound.
Indeed, the sound in these is, by some
distance, the best in the whole set,
which is ironic since these performances
are chronologically the earliest. I
would also venture to suggest that Rose
Pauly is also the best singer on display
in the whole set. She sings the two
lieder very well indeed and is splendidly
supported by Barbirolli. The closing
scene from Salomé is searingly
dramatic. In passing, itís worth noting
that Barbirolli plunges straight into
the music at a white-hot temperature,
clearly galvanising the orchestra; that
canít be an easy thing for even the
most experienced of conductors to do.
Pauly conveys superbly the frenzy and
desperate lust of the young Salomé
and sounds credible as a young (ish)
girl. She sounds hypnotically evil at
ĎAch! Ich habe deinen Mund geküsstí
(Track 15) and then rises to a stunning
vocal climax before JB sweeps the music
to a hectic close. No wonder members
of the audience shouted "bravo!"
How to evaluate this
pair of CDs? Iím thrilled to have heard
the Strauss. The Rossini is an interesting
addition to Barbirolliís discography
but it would be idle to pretend that
the sound quality is not a serious drawback.
The remaining items are, frankly, of
much less interest. The documentation
and presentation are up to Guildís usual
very high standards though a text and
English translation is provided for
the Rossini only. The set will be of
interest to admirers of Barbirolli but
I would strongly advise sampling the
discs fairly extensively before committing
to a purchase.