> Barbirolli Concert 1961 Aura [CH]: Classical CD Reviews- Aug 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Sir John BARBIROLLI (1899-1970) (arr)

An Elizabethan Suite

Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)

Symphony no. 8 in d
Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)

Capriccio Espagnol, op. 34
Emmanuel CHABRIER (1841-1894)


Hallé Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli
Recorded live 11.4.1961, Teatro Kursaal, Lugano, Switzerland
AURA AUR 181-2 [60’48"]


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There is no greater pleasure – and alas no rarer one – than that of discovering new qualities in a piece of music that you believed you knew all too well. I have known Rimsky-Korsakov’s "Spanish Caprice" for as long as I have been listening to music and have always liked it well enough without ever supposing it to be more than an agreeable pot-boiler, its Mediterranean colours more the fruit of the drawing-board than the heart. After all, have not conductors from such opposing ends of the expressive spectrum as Lorin Maazel and Sir Adrian Boult been pretty well agreed that all you can do with it is to play it briskly and brightly?

After the flamboyant opening Barbirolli had me listening with amazement as he revealed that this music has poetry and, yes, heart. While the woodwind have that melancholy mystery which we know from Manuel de Falla’s Spain but which usually seems lacking in Rimsky-Korsakov’s, when the strings take up their long melodies they are genuinely affecting and involving. As the pace quickens Barbirolli finds countless details of balancing and phrasing which give the music not just colour – plenty of others have done that – but also humanity. The music is made to speak of real joys and sorrows – and I didn’t know it could. And, in case you are getting the idea that this is very dolce but under-powered, let me assure you the final pages are absolutely incandescent. A great performance of a work which on the face of it hardly needed one.

I recently spoke of Markevich’s hard-hitting performance of the Chabrier. How much more complete an experience do we get from Barbirolli who can be brilliant when needed but also has warmth, humour and love.

Love. This is always the word which comes to mind when the name of Sir John Barbirolli is mentioned. Other conductors have been worshipped, respected, feared, but was any conductor more loved than Barbirolli? I don’t suppose the precise chemistry of this could be identified any more than that of love itself, but Barbirolli always gave his all to his public, warts and all, and they rewarded him with loyalty, devotion and love, not only in his beloved Manchester but in many other parts of the world. Italian orchestras would play their hearts out for him as for few other conductors and he is the only British conductor to have inspired affection in the Italian public. Orchestras and the public warmed to him in Berlin, Vienna, Paris and – in spite of his unhappy pre-war period in New York – the United States. It is notable how many of his fellow-conductors – not by nature a breed given to generosity towards their rivals – have spoken warmly of him. Listen to him starting the "Elizabethan Suite", in principle a ridiculously anachronistic affair which even in 1961 must have come to seem so. The first piece is the well-known "Earl of Salisbury’s Pavane" and what an arresting concert opening, how he digs into it with a Mahlerian intensity. In theory it’s all wrong, but how we love him for it.

When solemn discussions are in progress about the interpretation of the classics, the name of Barbirolli is not often cited beside the likes of Toscanini, Klemperer, Walter, Furtwängler and so on. He doesn’t belong to a particular "school"; even beside his compatriot Boult he appears a brilliant loner. This may not be just, but this record is hardly the occasion to reassess his Beethoven or his Brahms. Being unforgettable is no mean achievement anyway. However, in one field he was of course an incontestably authoritative interpreter – that of British music, and here he is conducting the symphony Vaughan Williams actually dedicated to "Glorious John".

The Lugano recording has a remarkably wide dynamic range for its date. If you set your volume level right for the magical opening, with its vibraphone, you will be knocked for six when the strings enter. There is a certain predominance of the violins in this really rather brilliant recording, but the Hallé violins can certainly withstand it. Perhaps if they’d been recorded on home ground on a "normal" evening, well, by 1961 people were saying that the Hallé was not quite what it was. Here they are geared up for a European tour (we don’t get specific information but I take it they didn’t just go out to Lugano and then home again), have been thoroughly rehearsed and we can admire the wonderful phrasing Barbirolli extracts from them as well as the brilliance and accuracy of their attack. The first movement is passionately presented, the second brilliant and humorous in turn, the third pliant and gentle, Barbirolli giving shape to music which can seem to meander in lesser hands. An exuberant finale concludes a piece that might have been made for Sir John – and in fact was. I haven’t Barbirolli’s Pye recording to hand for a comparison but I feel all his admirers should be glad to hear him conduct it live, and so loyally plugging British wares in a foreign clime. I wonder if it has ever been played again in Lugano in the intervening forty years?

And if not, why not? I have recently had a box of Shostakovich Symphonies to review. VW’s 8th is not even judged to be his best and yet, quite seriously, how many of the Shostakovich Symphonies reach or surpass it in strength of invention or clarity of form? Two of them? Three of them?

Having begun this review in the middle, as it were, I should now go back to the beginning and explain that Aura is an Italian company which has a particular link with Swiss-Italian Radio Television in Lugano. Not much information about the actual history of the release is given but these certainly appear to be proper official releases through the correct channels and the sound quality confirms this. Notes to the series are written by some of Italy’s leading critics – in this case Michele Selvini – but a common feature (by editorial request?) is that they present the artist general without much reference to the particular programme on offer. Maybe Selvini’s excellent assessment of Barbirolli’s career and artistry is what Italian buyers need. I for one would like to know what the Lugano press thought of the VW.

Aura have by now quite an extensive catalogue, with much interesting Lugano material but also some from other sources. You can follow this up in their website www.aura-music.com.

It only remains for me to extend the warmest recommendation to all who love passionate, committed music-making. If this were the only record we had of Barbirolli, it would be enough to prove that he was one of the greats.

Christopher Howell

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