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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    




Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
The Hebrides Ė Overture, op. 26 (1), Symphony no. 3 in A minor Ė "Scottish", op. 56 (1), Symphony no. 4 in A Ė "Italian", op. 90 (2)
Scottish National Orchestra/Sir Alexander Gibson (1), London Philharmonic Orchestra/James Lockhart (2)
Recorded in City Hall, Glasgow, 4.1975 (1), Barking Town Hall 6-7.1.1975 (2)
EMI CLASSICS FOR PLEASURE 574 9462 [77.15]


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Sir Alexander Gibson (1926-1995) became principal conductor of the Scottish National Orchestra in 1959, the first native Scot to lead an orchestra which had known distant moments of glory under Barbirolli and Szell (to the best of my knowledge no recorded documentation of their work with the orchestra exists) but had by then sunk very low indeed. By sheer hard slog and by taking the long view he built up an orchestra worthy of a national reputation, encouraged works by native composers, brought to Scotland the music of major contemporary names such as Henze, took the orchestra on tours first of Europe and then of the United States, and brought them into the recording studio first for Classics for Pleasure (not forgetting a few one-offs for Saga and EMI during the 60s) then for RCA and CRD (these recordings then reverted to Chandos). There were many critics at the time who felt that a great association was in the making, rather on the lines of Ansermet/Suisse Romande or Barbirolli/Hallé, an association where perhaps the orchestra was not an absolute world-beater but one in which conductor and orchestra became inseparable in the public mind.

But, having started his career with the Sadlerís Wells, Gibsonís heart was in many ways in opera. His creation of Scottish Opera in 1962 was one of the outstanding success stories of post-war Britain. He was soon attracting soloists of the highest international calibre as well as encouraging Scottish talents. His "Ring" in 1971 was a milestone and so was his "Trojans"! Without in any way belittling Sir Colin Davisís historical achievement in putting Berlioz on the international map, I hope it has not been forgotten that it was Gibsonís production (with Janet Baker) which set the ball rolling (but the Scottish roots of the "Trojans" revival go back to Eric Chisholm). After many years fighting the recalcitrant Edinburgh authorities to have an opera house built in the only European capital that lacked one (and which harboured a citizen who published a letter in the "Scotsman" showing, figures at hand, that, opera lovers being very few, it would be cheaper to cart them all off to Bayreuth once a year at public expense than to build an opera house in which they could indulge their fancies), Scottish Opera finally made its home in Glasgow with the reopening of the Theatre Royal in 1975. For Gibsonís pains, not a single complete opera was ever commercially recorded under his baton, though a few discs of extracts were made.

Gibson held his post with the SNO till his jubilee year of 1984, and remained with Scottish Opera another three years to complete his jubilee there too. Perhaps todayís fidgety world is no longer the place for such long reigns. The recording world quickly forgot about him as Chandos flooded the market with Järvi-led SNO (now RSNO) recordings which seemed to show a flair that Gibson, for all his honest musicianship, never quite managed. He began recording again for Collins in the 1990s but had done little before he died, at no great age as conductors go.

I myself spent four years as a student in Edinburgh at about the half-way point of his long reign (1971-5), during which time I must have attended every concert or opera performance he conducted in that city except during the International Festival, and I think my abiding memories today are of both gratitude (for a remarkably well-balanced diet of the basic classics, a smattering of contemporary works and the odd rarity) and affection for an interpretative profile to which I found I increasingly warmed. That said, "Gibby-bashing" was a popular sport in the stinking cess-pit of unwashed coffee-cups and fag-ends that went under the name of the "studentsí common room" (we thought principal guest-conductor Gary Bertini much better; Iíll talk about that if I get a Bertini record to review). And there were times when "Gibby" seemed to want to prove us right. There were evenings when he just didnít seem to care how things went, and others when, finding the orchestra was not with him, he whipped up the tempi and scampered rough-shod to the end of the piece. But there were times when, having maybe piloted the orchestra through some new Scottish piece (he was very expert at this) and accompanied a famous soloist with no great flair (his accompaniments rarely transformed into partnerships), he would take the centre of the stage with a romantic symphony, his gestures would achieve a remarkable symbiosis with the orchestra and by the end he would have his critics dumbfounded and cheering. There was a Rachmaninov 2 that was the talk of the town (the excellent recording that followed was not a patch on the live performance) and a triumphantly surging Elgar 1 that was followed a few months later by a hasty, ragged and listless parody of itself and then by a recording that was not ragged and listless but never quite caught wing either. Alas, Gibson was direly unpredictable and Chandos had their commercial reasons for forgetting him when Järvi could so unfailingly deliver the goods, but for all that his direct, selfless yet cumulatively structured way with romantic symphonies has remained with me as an ideal to be pursued.

Mendelssohnís two Scottish works make a typical record programmerís "horses for courses" choice (I never heard him conduct either work, yet I was still in Scotland when this disc was made). More to the point, it shows him somewhere near his best. One characteristic of his conducting was an ability to create a sense of exaltation in fast tutti passages while actually holding the tempo firm; the overture achieves some thrilling storms as well as some subtle undercurrents in the quieter moments (the opening is deceptively calm, with the latent power of the ocean already felt), and all with only minimal adjustments to the basic tempo. As for the symphony, this is far from spick and span Mendelssohn: he conducts it with a quite disarming warmth and generosity of phrasing, for all the world like the great national Scottish symphony which no native composer had written. From the proudly carolled opening through to the gathering of the clans in the finale this is a passionately romantic symphony, and nowhere is it more remarkable than at the very end. So often this coda seems an anti-climax (the great Otto Klemperer actually wrote a new ending, not for his recording, but which has now surfaced on a live issue); Gibson seems to believe in it wholeheartedly and brings to a triumphant close a performance that has so much of the tension of his best live concerts that I almost expected to hear a cheering audience at the end. A full-sounding recording which often seems on the verge of overloading adds to the excitement.

Lockhartís "Italian" only points out Gibsonís real stature, but I do not wish to dwell on this since Lockhart did much good work at Sadlerís Wells and ENO and may well be doing good work still in Germany (an Internet search revealed no recent information). Classics for Pleasure policy was to take an orchestra that could hardly play badly if it tried (the LPO in its halcyon Haitink-days), put any competent conductor in front of it that happened to be handy and get the thing taped. No time to obtain a real rapport between conductor and orchestra. Under the circumstances Lockhart pitches into the outer movements with admirable vitality, but opportunities for lyricism go for little while cello and bass accompanying figures bump along on automatic pilot. Itís not bad, but it does nobody any favours resurrecting it now. If the original two works were not enough for even a cheap CD, then it would have been better to forget the all-Mendelssohn aspect and give us another example of Gibson at his best. Or else forget the all-Classics for Pleasure aspect and let us hear, for example, the "Italian" that Boult recorded for World Record Club with the same orchestra in the late 60s, surely a more interesting proposition.

Christopher Howell


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