> John Barbirolli: Edward Elgar [CF]: Classical CD Reviews- Nov 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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John BARBIROLLI (1899-1970)
Edward ELGAR (1863-1934)
Serenade for Strings Op. 47 (1899)
Symphony No. 1 in Ab major Op. 55 (1902)

Hallé Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli
Recorded at St Nicholas’ Chapel, Kings Lynn, Norfolk on 24 July 1970


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As Michael Kennedy narrates in his fine essay which accompanies this invaluable disc, Sir John Barbirolli had said to him a few weeks before this concert, recorded live on 24 July 1970, ‘You know every concert now might be my last’. It was an eerily prescient remark for Barbirolli died on 28 July, and this concert was his last with his beloved Hallé Orchestra and the last music by Elgar which he ever conducted. The Norwich Festival, with his friend Lady Ruth Fermoy at its epicentre, was an event to which he always gave priority in his diary of engagements even if it meant coming back from foreign lands to conduct at it. The two works he directs here were both close to his heart, and remind us of Barbirolli the cellist of his early professional career, consummately at ease in an all-string environment. No grunts and groans here as in the days of the vinyl recording titled ‘Barbirolli conducts English string music’ but you sense every gesture, every impulse and every nuance which he invests in this stirring interpretation. He makes it what it is, one of the classics of its genre in the 20th century and recorded it six times between 1927 and 1962. This may not qualify as a ‘recording’ because it is a live performance but I am convinced it is his finest account. It is full-blooded from the start with its strikingly bare open-strings of Gs and Ds to the final, immaculately placed pizzicato of joyous G major. True those screamingly awkward rising passages leading to the dizzy heights and a top A which the poor concertino violins have to contend with two bars before figure 12 (marginally easier at a tone lower at the corresponding place before figure 27) would have had to be recorded again (perhaps more than a few times for the Hallé strings are not always pin-point accurate here and elsewhere) but in terms of spirit, élan and style, it would be a hard recording to beat.

The start of the Symphony (to this reviewer its tread conjures up an image of its dedicatee and first interpreter, Hallé conductor Hans Richter, plodding down St Peter’s Street to rehearse at the old Free Trade Hall in 1900) sets the tone of the performance. One has the distinct impression that Barbirolli doesn’t want any part of it to be over, neither its glorious melodies nor its glowing harmonies, and he lingers lovingly over every note of this motto theme whilst suffusing the rest of the work with the care for detail in his musicmaking for which he was always deservedly praised. In this performance the Hallé stops at nought. It may be the dog-end of the season, probably a tiring one if my memories of those golden days are accurate, and the prospect of a summer holiday may be imminent for the players (not for JB though, for he was planning to go off in a few days to Tokyo and Expo 70 with the New Philharmonia Orchestra before death intervened)), yet somehow Elgar has taken over and their long-steeped tradition from Richter to Barbirolli via Harty and occasional forays north by the composer himself, shines through. Martin Milner’s solo violin is very distant in the first movement (better in the third), but apart from that it is a remarkable achievement in terms of recording, balance and ambience. There are climaxes in which the brass achieve terrifying intensity, and for a man who had had a heart seizure that morning as he entered the church for rehearsal, it must have taken an awful toll on Barbirolli’s shaky health to exhort them to produce such sounds. One can only marvel that he survived for four more days. The scherzo is uncompromisingly fleet-footed, breathlessly so at the start but then it finds its equilibrium, with the pacing of the link into the Adagio finely judged. Listening to his interpretation of this great slow movement one can only mourn the passing of this unique conductor, for it is at its most affecting in its last two minutes - surely this is JB bidding us farewell. In the finale, sadness turns to gratitude for his musical legacy which it is still a privilege to enjoy thanks to such discs as this one. The music from figure 130 to 134 (track 5: 6’ 53" to 7’ 53") - precisely one minute - says it all.

In the booklet there are three photographs which are highly evocative, particularly the first in which the diminutive conductor is being patiently led by the ever-gracious Lady Evelyn, who this year celebrated her ninetieth birthday. If only her husband could have been granted another twenty years.

This may have been Barbirolli’s last Elgar, but it ranks as his best.

Christopher Fifield


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