> Mahler Symphony 2 Barbirolli [TD]: Classical Reviews- April2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No.2 in C Minor "Resurrection" (1888-1894)
Helen Donath (Soprano), Birgit Finnilä (Mezzo Soprano), Südfunk-Chor, Chor der Staatlichen Hochschule für Musik und Darsstellende Kunst, Stuttgart and Radio-Sinfonieorchester, Stuttgart/Sir John Barbirolli
(Recorded "live" in the Konzerthaus Liederhalle, Stuttgart on April 5th 1970)
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: Prelude to Act I (1862-1868)
London Symphony Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli
(Recorded in Abbey Road Studios, London on 27th September 1969)
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Enigma Variations (1899)
Hallé Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli
(Recorded in the Free Trade Hall, Manchester on June 21st and 23rd 1956)
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Ma Mère l’oye

Hallé Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli
(Recorded in the Free Trade Hall, Manchester on 21st and 22nd May 1957)
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Madama Butterfly: Love Duet from Act 1 (1904)
Conducted by Sir John Barbirolli
Renata Scotto (Soprano), Carlo Bergonzi (Tenor)
Orchestra del Teatro dell’Opera di Roma/Sir John Barbirolli
(Recorded in Teatro dell’Opera, Rome in August 1966)
Tape remastering by Paul Baily (Re:Sound)
EMI Great Conductors of the Twentieth Century 5 75100 2 2 CDs [149.37]

"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 reviewed here.

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 the Elgar.

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 interpretation.

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 indispensable.

Tony Duggan

Visit Tony Duggan's Mahler pages

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