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Sir John Barbirolli
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791) Symphony No. 35 in D major, K.385, "Haffner"
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1777-1827)
Symphony No.7 in A major, Op.92
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Siegfried Idyll
Halle Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli
(Royal Albert Hall, London, 12 August 1967. Royal Festival Hall, London, 24 April 1968. BBC Studios, Manchester, 22 April 1966.)
BBC Legends BBCL 4076-2 [74.01]

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Recordings of Sir John Barbirolli have been mainstays of the BBC Legends series since it began. Often, as here, they emerge from the collection of the indefatigable Paul Brooks. Outstanding past issues have been Mahlerís Third (BBCL 4004-7) and Brucknerís Eighth Symphonies (BBCL 4067-2), both of which I have reviewed here and recommend to you enthusiastically. Other issues have been more problematic mainly because of poor sound quality and orchestral playing. However, as these have all brought recordings of works that Sir John never recorded commercially, they fill gaps in the discography of a much-loved musician and that is surely one of the principal values of a series like this.

This present disc is a case in point with three works taken from different times and places but all with his beloved Halle Orchestra. The most important is that of Beethovenís Seventh Symphony. The Beethoven symphonies were a constant presence in Barbirolliís programmes all through his career but he only ever recorded the First, Third, Fifth and Eighth commercially. The recording of the Third for EMI with the BBC Symphony Orchestra is particularly fine and is now available on Dutton (CDSJB 1008). Hearing such a spacious and sonorous performance of the "Eroica" might lead you to expect a similar approach in the Seventh. Not a bit of it. Sir John gave each work that he performed its own individual interpretation and that is the case here for a work he clearly felt a great deal for as he programmed it in his 70th Birthday concert in Manchester. Indeed, as Lyndon Jenkinsís excellent notes point out, this was coincidentally the last work he ever conducted in public. Here in 1968 his overall conception of the work imbues it with great strength and drama but this is never at the expense of tempi that keep the work moving. Rather itís with a sure stress on the crucial rhythmic topology of the piece allowing this to govern his view of each movement that Sir John carries the work through. Take the second and fourth movements as examples. Under some conductors the second movement can sound a quasi-funeral march. There is nothing wrong with that but under Barbirolli the tone of voice is more optimistic and will come as a surprise to some people who think they know this conductor well. In the fourth movement there is controlled insistence, a steady pressure, rather than the mad rush we have become used to in recent years that builds a great sense of tension into the music. But notice the way Barbirolli also brings out the militaristic colours in the winds that give it real character and presence. This Beethoven Seventh also has the best sound on the disc though it does betray the dry Royal Festival Hall acoustic along with the fact that it was taken off-air bringing some limitation in tone colours.

The performance of Mozartís "Haffner" Symphony is from a Promenade Concert at the Royal Albert Hall in 1967, the first half of one of Barbirolliís "Viennese Nights". This might explain the jauntiness and high spirits throughout. Especially the liberal displays of string dynamics, maybe limbering up for the Strauss Family music to come in the second half. (Is there a Barbirolli "Viennese Night" available to BBC Legends, I wonder?). This is "big band" Mozart very much of its time with a first movement notable for thrust and power and a superbly dashing last movement. The sound is wide and big-boned but has a tendency to the top end that might need a treble cut on your amplifier.

Finally we have Wagnerís "Siegfried Idyll" in a Manchester studio recording. The sound here is rather boomy and cloudy though it is clear enough to hear the details of an affectionate, long-breathed performance with more than a touch of Elgarian nobilmente in the woodwind interludes. There is also a glow about the conclusion of the work that few conductors today would even attempt, with a slow tempi sustained with great line and depth. Not a performance of this lovely work I would reach for every time, though, but good to have in my collection.

Three more works from the Barbirolli repertoire in fair sound and good performances.

Tony Duggan


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