"It was as if the great old man was trying to shake
the gates of eternity from their hinges," wrote a member of the audience
in Stuttgart on April 5th 1970 to the Intendant of the Berlin Philharmonic
after hearing Barbirolli conduct Mahler's Second Symphony there. By
then "the great old man" had just weeks to live and in the last months
of his life he had been much concerned with this particular work, so
perhaps the letter writer was closer to the truth than he knew. Sir
John had conducted the Second in Manchester in November 1969, then again
in Stuttgart five months later. It is one of my greatest regrets that
I had the chance to go to that Manchester performance but didn't take
it. As a 15-year-old taking his first steps in classical music I chose
instead to see Sir John conduct Rossini, Debussy and Elgar a week before.
Fortunately the Stuttgart performance was taped for broadcasting and
an unofficial "aircheck" has been available for some years on the Arkadia
label. Sound-wise this had considerable limitations and was hard to
find. However it was always known that Stuttgart Radio had retained
the master tape and many of us who admired the performance hoped one
day it would get an official release. That day has now come with the
recording forming the centrepiece of this set in EMI's "Great Conductors
of the 20th Century" series. This is a production by IMG Artists who
have, through their association with BBC Legends, already brought us
another great Mahler recording from the same period of Barbirolli's
life: his Hallé Orchestra version of the Third Symphony made
for the BBC (BBC Legends BBCL 4004-7) also
Barbirolli knew Mahler's Second intimately. Lyndon
Jenkins's notes tell us he had performed it thirty-two times in twelve
years by the time he came to step on to the podium in Stuttgart. In
the first movement the feeling - the tone of voice - is of the world-weary
which when you consider Sir John was by then quite ill is not surprising.
Note the lamenting, singing line that appears to run through to run
through every page. It is broadly sung and yet expectant too with some
expressive string playing and excellent woodwinds full of character.
Hear also how the tension builds through the first development, assisted
greatly by Barbirolli's feel for the particular sound of this movement.
He is almost Klemperer-like as he exposes the bones beneath the skin,
the muscularity within the lyricism. The crisis at the recapitulation
is dramatic though a crucial moment of uncertainty in the ensemble should
be noted here which, I think, adds to the sense of drama in this "live"
experience even though it will be irritating on repeated listening for
some. I'm afraid this is something you either have to be prepared to
accept in archive recordings like this or steer clear of them. But I
think you would be the poorer if you did. The Klemperer-like urgency
continues through the recapitulation so that the slowing down at the
return of the great ascending theme doesn't need to be too broad to
make an effect. Sir John is ever the master of tempo relationships,
carried forward to the coda that has a great sense of menace as the
music makes its approach and then a slight quickening to the climax.
I also admire the way Barbirolli seems to leave the movement hanging
on a question. More so than any other conductor and a unique touch.
All in all this is a reading in the grand tradition that still seems
to unite both the urgency of Klemperer and the lyricism of a Walter.
The second movement then gets a largely straightforward
performance compared with the first but one still full of rhythmic point
that makes it rather special. I also feel that Barbirolli notices kinship
between this music and the Altvaterisch passages in the Scherzo of the
Sixth Symphony and that is a nice touch. Note also the singing cellos
in the latter part of the first episode: a real Barbirolli fingerprint
there. Then in the central section there is the superb balancing of
parts - woodwind and brass against strings are particularly good. In
spite of what some people may think, Barbirolli was a man whose Mahler
could move along but I do wonder if this is how it would have been had
he recorded it in the studio? Evidence of comparing off-air recordings
of "live" performances with studio versions shows a tighter approach
in the concert hall to tempo.
It really takes a master conductor of Mahler to recognise
and bring out the ironies and sarcasm in the third movement and Barbirolli
is certainly in that category on this evidence alone. He does it by
seeming to have grasped that this is firstly very weird and unhinged
music indeed. Mahler after all wrote of seeing the world in a concave
mirror. Those prominent wind lines I mentioned earlier are used again
to full effect to convey all of this. The constant hinting of an uneasy
lyricism at the heart of this movement shows Barbirolli recognises that
this is very uncomfortable music indeed. I also like the col legno
snaps from the strings as well as they suggest the sharp edges of the
movement so well. The central section strives and exhilarates but the
trumpet solo at the heart is delivered like no other performance I know,
not even Klemperer's, so full is it of aching nostalgia among the kaleidoscope.
Exactly as it should be. Why can't other conductors get their trumpeters
to play it like this? Are the players too afraid of sounding cheap?
Note again the lovely pointing of the woodwind, perky and cheeky and
then the rush to the cry of disgust where a sharp and grand quality
then enters the music delivering weight and true power.
In the fourth movement Birgit Finnilä is suitably
dark in "Urlicht" but notice the deliberate pointing of the brass against
her opening line and then the final flourish on the strings as the movement
closes. This is a unique touch of JB in the night, I think. A bit naughty,
of course, but I would be happy to enter his plea in mitigation after
a visit from the score police. All in all this is a very Mahlerian reading
of the movement. By that I mean that it's full of delicious "Wunderhorn"
characteristics - note the plangent brass and the melodic line stressed.
Not the rather pious, prissy hymn we too often hear. The fifth movement
then bursts in with fine abandon and notice the prominence given to
the fine woodwind players again as the music settles down. After the
off-stage "voice in wilderness" the approach by Barbirolli as the ascent
begins is remarkably direct, no hamming, no mannerism. The Music is
allowed to speak for itself but with some fine highlighting of solo
instruments to vary the texture and keep the ear always interested.
Barbirolli recognises the drama within the music superbly and that it
must be varied. There is even a lilt in the way the music gathers strength
and still he doesn't linger as some conductors do seeming to have a
much tougher conception, and so it will prove as time goes on. The first
appearance of the "O Glaube" motive becomes superbly restless,
a small cauldron bubbling away and then the solemn brass with very fruity
vibrato leads to a fine climax which caps the episode with drama and
colour. The great march is again Klemperer-like, this time in its sheer
guts and trenchancy. It is also very colourful and not a little manic.
There are some fluffs from the brass in the cut and thrust of this "live"
performance, but what do you expect? Anyway these only add to the experience
of struggle and travail. You can hear everything clearly also because,
like all the great Mahler conductors, Barbirolli knew to make every
note count, especially in the crises that engulf at the march's end.
These are remarkable for their clarity, as also is the interlude with
the off-stage brass band that contains a truly snarling trombone solo
and great swagger from the band. One of the best realisations of this
crucial moment I have ever heard. When the chorus enters there is real
serenity. Not the serenity of a plaster saint but of a man, one who
has seen life, sinned and repented before a hard-won deliverance that
rises at the end to triumphant, dramatic paen.
If you know Barbirolli's studio recordings of Mahler
this may not be the kind of performance you would expect. It's a fascinating
reading full of insight, drama and a sense of danger. Both from the
fact that it's "live" and also from Sir John's own philosophy of Mahler
in performance with the score as almost a living entity that should
come off the page. Rather like his performance of Bruckner's
Eighth Symphony from six weeks later in London (BBC Legends BBCL
4067-2) he also seems to expose the nerve ends of the music and rage
against the creeping shadow of his own mortality to a degree that is,
in hindsight, deeply moving. Shaking the gates of eternity, as that
member of audience in Stuttgart so perceptively noted. Such a distinctive
reading demands consideration both in itself and as evidence of one
of the great Mahlerians caught "on the wing" and in the final weeks
of his life. It is flawed in execution, though. As I have said, there
are a few fluffs in the ensemble, most times in places that you wouldn't
expect any problems to occur, and you must be aware of these. Apart
from the passage in the first movement recapitulation already mentioned
the worst moment is probably when the trumpet section misses its climactic
entry in the coda of the last movement and comes in a bar or two late.
Nothing can be done about this and to throw out this recording on the
back of explainable and excusable lapses such as this would be perverse
in the extreme. I also believe that, in spite of all that, this is a
performance touched with genius. Not a recording for the everyday, certainly.
One to take down every so often with the virtues surely outweighing
the vices overwhelmingly, I believe so.
The rest of the set is a very good representation of
Barbirolli's art. No Vaughan Williams, which is a pity, but there may
have been commercial considerations to take into account. Many people
will already have Sir John's RVW in their collections and the presence
of the Mahler indicates a desire to issue recordings in this series
that may be unfamiliar. I think this might have had something to do
with the presence of the Mastersingers Prelude. This was recorded in
time left over at the EMI sessions for Strauss's Ein Heldenleben in
1969 with the London Symphony Orchestra to coincide with a concert performance.
It was not issued at the time and only came out in EMI's memorial tribute
to Sir John in 1970 so many people will not have this. If you know the
Heldenleben recording you will know it presents from some expansive
tempi that are sometimes to the work's detriment and the same is true
of this Mastersingers Prelude. The LSO does play magnificently. The
horns are especially ripe and the strings too sustain Barbirolli's huge
line superbly. The cellos dig so deep into the notes it's surprising
they didn't hit the water table. The woodwinds deliver the Apprentices
rubicund and chubby but they are rather old Apprentices in this evidence.
In the end there is not really enough lift and bounce to this joyous
music to make me want to hear this performance too often but the sheer
honesty and love of the music by this conductor shines through and the
vintage recorded sound has come up beautifully.
The Ravel and Elgar items are a different matter as
both these recordings come from earlier in Barbirolli's career and the
golden years with the Hallé Orchestra in the middle and late
1950s when he was recording for the Pye label often with the Mercury
recording team in attendance. Again they have been more out of the catalogue
than in since release so it is good to see them here. Ravel's Mother
Goose has freshness and precision that speaks volumes for the standards
of playing the Hallé had achieved by 1957. Barbirolli was also
half-French and always had an affinity for French music. Here he marries
a sharp ear for detail with a lovely sense of lyricism and melody. The
sound recording also belies its years and is a charming interlude before
I have always preferred Barbirolli’s 1956 Pye version
of the Enigma Variations with the Hallé Orchestra to his remake
with the Philharmonia for EMI ten years later. It was out of the catalogue
many years and its only CD appearance was so short many will not have
it. For one thing there is a real sense of being present at a "live"
performance even though this is a studio recording made in the empty
Free Trade Hall. This means the individual variations seem to unfold
more naturally, each growing out of its predecessor seamlessly to make
a really satisfying whole. R.P.A. (V) is a slightly freer spirit than
he is ten years later, I think, and there is a more rhapsodic feel in
the slightly quicker tempi for the other, more sweeping melodies. They
are helped too by the slightly fuller acoustic. This can be heard to
good effect in W.M.B (IV) and "Troyte" (VII) where every section of
the strings making their runs are audible, cellos especially digging
in. However it must be said that in both recordings Barbirolli's reading
of this work is filled with imagination and affection. Winifred Norbury
(VIII) comes over as real prelude to Nimrod (IX) which is as noble and
as moving a song of friendship that you could wish for. Played as it
is here, shorn of mawkish memorial tone, it’s an object lesson in direct
communication and note the judicious use of string slides from the cellos
especially to give the requisite lyricism. "Dorabella" (X)
is a skittish little thing contrasting beautifully with a really boisterous
Dan the Bulldog in G.R.S (XI). But I have always felt that for Barbirolli
the real heart of the work was not "Nimrod" but B.G.N (XII)
and "Romanza" (XIII) running together. Basil Nevinson's great
cello variation always brought out the best in Barbirolli and he probably
rehearsed the section by playing it to them himself. Here it wraps itself
around you like a great warm cloak on a freezing cold day. Then there
is that seamless transformation into the following variation, "Romanza",
recalling a friend half a world away. Here, I think, is the key to the
A couple of years ago I made the pilgrimage to the
Elgar Birthplace Museum in Broadheath near Worcester. On a hot summer's
afternoon, like many Elgarians before me, I sat on a window cill overlooking
the gardens in full bloom. It might have been the turn of the 19th rather
than the 20th century. The "Romanza" was playing on the loudspeakers
in the house and it reminded me, if I needed it, that Elgar could evoke
the pure magic of nostalgic memory like few other composers. Elgar’s
contemporary Mahler could do it, of course, but not with the same sense
of warmth. Think of all the place names littering Elgar’s scores: Alassio
in "In The South", Venice in the Second Symphony, Longdon Marsh in "The
Apostles, even a distant memory of the summer wind blowing in pine trees
on a country road in childhood conjured up in Gerontius" by Newman's
words. Treasured places from the past to unlock the secrets of the heart
in the present; memories recollected in tranquillity. So the Enigma
Variations are certainly about friendship but, like a lot of Elgar's
profoundest music, they are also about the power of memory. Barbirolli's
delivery of the "Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage" clarinet theme across
the gentle throb of the timpani-created ship's engine in the "Romanza"
shows he knew the value of memory also, and what to do with it. Here
is a recording that celebrates this, illustrates it and most especially
in that particular variation. Don't ask me quite how Barbirolli does
it because I don't really know. It's just one of those things that you
feel and which is in the alchemy of the greatest performances among
which this is. It just remains to say the finale contains in the closing
pages a real concert organ and you have a recording of the Enigma Variations
to really treasure.
The Love Duet from Puccini’s "Madam Butterfly"
is placed rather strangely after the end of the Mahler Symphony. Though
this might have had something to do with making good use of disc space.
Barbirolli was a great opera conductor and yet only made three complete
opera recordings. (He should have recorded Wagner’s "Die Meistersinger"
in Dresden in 1968 but cancelled after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia
and so Von Karajan got the assignment after Barbirolli's death.) "Madam
Butterfly" saw Sir John travel to Rome and the land of his forebears
to produce a classic version of this much-loved work. I'm pleased the
Love Duet begins here a couple of minutes before "Bimba dagli occhi",
as this wonderful tenor entry needs to steal up on you to make its
best effect. Carlo Bergonzi is an intelligent singer and Renata Scotto
one of the great Butterflies and both are well supported by the Rome
Opera Orchestra who respond to Barbirolli's inspired direction with
passion and power.
A great memorial to a much-loved conductor that contains
a memorable Mahler Second rescued from the archives and that makes it
Duggan's Mahler pages