In 2008 Manchester’s Hallé Orchestra celebrated
with, among other things, an extremely fine recording of Elgar’s Dream
The music of Elgar has occupied an important place in the orchestra’s repertoire
over the years. Famously, it gave the first performance of the First Symphony
under Richter in 1908. In later years Sir John Barbirolli particularly nurtured
and developed the orchestra’s Elgar tradition and more recently it’s
been wonderful to find that tradition - and so much else - in such fine fettle
under the inspired leadership of the current Music Director, Sir Mark Elder.
This pair of CDs takes us back a further fifty years to the orchestra’s
centenary season and to the very concert with which that centenary was marked.
The concert was broadcast in full by BBC radio - and televised also - and what
we have here is a private recording, presumably off-air, of the entire concert,
announcements and all, expertly remastered by Paul Baily. Inevitably there are
sonic limitations - the bass is somewhat booming, for example, especially in
the reproduction of the piano sound in the concerto and, throughout, the sound
of the orchestra can be a bit distant and is not always in consistent focus.
However, the overall sound is perfectly acceptable and we can only be grateful
that this recording was made, has survived and is now available as a permanent
memento of an important date in the Hallé’s history.
The booklet contains a good selection of evocative photographs of the concert
and an extensive note. There could be only one choice to write that note. Michael
Kennedy has played quite a role in the Hallé’s history over the
last five decades or so, not least as its chronicler and as the biographer of
Barbirolli. In a fascinating and characteristically readable essay he relates
the story of not just this concert but also of the centenary season itself. He
was a member of a small informal advisory committee that Barbirolli established
to help him plan the season, though as Kennedy puts it, “I don’t
remember that we did much advising”. The other members of that little group
were Barbirolli himself, the then-General Manager of the Hallé Concerts
Society, Kenneth Crickmore, and the critic of what was then the Manchester
newspaper, Colin Mason. Kennedy is the sole survivor of that committee.
As Mr Kennedy relates, the centenary concert programme was chosen with care,
though in a sense the music chose itself. The Weber overture had been the opening
piece at Charles Hallé’s very first concert with his new orchestra.
The Brahms concerto received its second performance in the UK in Manchester with
Hallé himself, no mean pianist, playing the solo part. Clifford Curzon
- he had not then been knighted - was Barbirolli’s choice as soloist because
he’d been the first soloist to play with JB and the reconstituted orchestra
back in 1943. Surprisingly, perhaps, the choice of symphony was less automatic.
Barbirolli was keen to play the Berlioz Symphonie fantastique
, which would
have been a most appropriate choice for several reasons. However, as Michael
Kennedy says “it was pointed out” to him that the Berlioz had been
played at the reopening of the Free Trade Hall in 1951 and that some English
music would be highly desirable in the centenary concert, not least the great
Elgar symphony, premièred by this very orchestra. I wonder exactly who
did the “pointing out”? Though he’d be far too modest to say
so, I wouldn’t be surprised if Michael Kennedy himself suggested the Elgar
to JB. Whoever was responsible it was a felicitous choice.
There’s an undoubted sense of occasion about the music-making in this concert.
It must be noted, however, that the playing is not infallible. The slow opening
to the Weber overture is a little shaky in places - perhaps a case of nerves?
However, the main allegro
of the piece is spirited and one senses the
orchestra getting into its collective stride.
There are some minor problems with the Brahms concerto also. There’s a
decided tuning discrepancy between the solo horn and the piano at the very start
- and this isn’t the only time that there is a tuning lapse during the
concert - but I wouldn’t make too much of this beside the sweep and heart
of the performance. Recently I reviewed
performance of this same concerto that Curzon gave with the Boston Symphony under
Charles Munch in January 1953 and I noted a surprising number of finger-slips
by Curzon in the first movement. Happily, this Hallé account is not similarly
affected; in fact, Curzon is on pretty impressive form. The piano is rather favoured
in the balance and, as previously mentioned, the reproduction of the piano is
somewhat bass heavy.
Strongly supported by Barbirolli, Curzon unfolds a commanding yet lyrical account
of the concerto. The first movement receives a passionate reading while the second
movement is surging and red-blooded. As a cellist himself I’m sure Barbirolli
would have appreciated the dignified playing of his principal cellist, Oliver
Vella, in the crucial solos during the third movement. JB clearly relishes this
lyrical movement and leads a glowing account of it. Curzon’s playing has
great poise and poetry but he and Barbirolli certainly don’t treat the
movement simply as a dreamy idyll; there’s strength in the playing where
Brahms requires it. As befits a celebratory occasion, the finale is lively and
high-spirited. Overall, this concerto performance is a fine one, fit to grace
Barbirolli was a noted exponent of both Elgar symphonies and I’ve always
loved his way with the First, which he did a bit better than the Second, fine
though his performances of the latter were. The mixture of splendour and melancholy
in the First suited Barbirolli well. It was in the last concert I ever saw him
conduct, in Bradford, and some months later it also featured in what was to be
his penultimate concert before his death. That superb performance, also with
the Hallé, is thankfully preserved for us on BBC Legends (see review
and I share completely Christopher Fifield’s view that this performance
ranks as Barbirolli’s best. This 1958 account isn’t quite in that
league - the orchestra was in better shape by 1970 - but it’s still a notable
In I the unfolding of the motto theme is genuinely noble yet unaffected. The
is passionate and has great sweep. Generally JB doesn’t
lose momentum in the more reflective stretches, though he takes slowly the passage
where the motto returns (6:47) and he’s perhaps just a touch too pensive
at this point. Also I think he does linger a little too lovingly over the last
couple of minutes, though this is understandable in the context of the occasion.
On the other hand, there is powerful turbulence in the passage between 8:43 and
10:00, where one senses dark undercurrents in the music followed by some genuinely
There’s no lack of energy or forward momentum in II and the wondrous transition
to III is accomplished in a masterful way. In this great adagio
surely in his element. The music sings richly and with nobility. His players
rise to the occasion, especially the strings and horns. I found the section from
8:25 to the end of the movement very moving.
At the start of IV Barbirolli conveys a mood of suspense and then when Elgar
releases the tension at the allegro
the conductor ensures that the music
surges powerfully and passionately. There’s great urgency in these pages;
indeed, at times the music positively seethes. Between 6:06 and 7:05 Elgar brings
back the ghostly march heard at the start of the movement but now gloriously
transformed into major key warmth, the harps rippling beautifully. It’s
an eye-pricking moment in this performance, though Barbirolli doesn’t do
anything other than to observe Elgar’s markings. The lead up to the return
of the motto theme, horns to the fore, (from 8:42) is highly charged and then
the great theme returns, trailing clouds of glory (9:13). I often think that
the orchestral flourishes at this point are attempts to disrupt the progress
of the theme, to remind us that triumph can be hard won. Not on this occasion!
Here the flourishes decorate the theme and help to impel the symphony to a conclusion
This is a very moving performance of the symphony. As Michael Kennedy points
out, Barbirolli was keen to celebrate in this concert and, in the whole season,
the achievements of his distinguished predecessors, including Hallé himself,
Richter and Harty. However, the performance and, indeed, the whole concert, is
a potent reminder of the scale of Barbirolli’s own achievement in rebuilding
and developing the orchestra in the previous fifteen years.
The scale of that achievement is reinforced by the fascinating conversation that
follows the symphony. I’m not sure when this was recorded and broadcast
but clearly it was around the same time. Alec Robertson chairs a discussion involving
Barbirolli, the aforementioned Kenneth Crickmore and the then-Chairman of the
Hallé Concerts Society, Leonard Behrens. Among other things they recall
between them Barbirolli’s arrival in Manchester in April 1943 when the
magnitude of the task he had taken on became clear. It’s very interesting
This is an important archive issue. The music-making is of a high order but above
all the set provides a fine souvenir of the great partnership between Sir John
Barbirolli and the Hallé, one of the most remarkable and important partnerships
in British musical history.
Barbirolli Society website