Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No.8 in C minor (Ed. Haas)
(Royal Festival Hall, London on 20th May 1970)
BBC LEGENDS BBCL 4067-2
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.