This BBC Legends disc brings together various performances
of English pieces by Sir John Barbirolli (1899-1970), all but one of
them given in the last four years of his life.
The National Anthem was an institution at Barbirolli
concerts and here, played at the start of the annual Royal Concert,
the additional contribution from the musicians of the Royal Military
School of Music and from the organ of the Royal Albert Hall adds an
extra grandeur to the proceedings.
It’s good to have Rawsthorne’s perky Street Corner
Overture (1944), the more so since so far as I’m aware Barbirolli
never set down a studio recording. The piece evokes, in the composer’s
words, "a Saturday night at the crossroads of a busy industrial
town". This is a bubbling, infectious performance and it’s all
Barbirolli was the dedicatee of Vaughan Williams’ Eighth
Symphony and he gave the first performance in May 1956, following that
up with the premiere recording a month later. The work has come in for
some criticism over the years and is relatively neglected. However,
as Michael Kennedy justly observes in his notes "its music, the
scoring virtuosic throughout, is deeper than a jeu d’esprit."
I find it a most engaging score and here it sparkles and glows in JB’s
affectionate and totally understanding interpretation. What a fine,
many-faceted composer RVW was, and how well was his music served by
‘Glorious John’. The Hallé play with commitment and finesse for
their longstanding chief.
This account does not supersede Barbirolli’s 1956 studio
recording, I think, but it is a most valuable supplement and a very
good performance in its own right, especially as by then Barbirolli
had had the benefit of knowing the score for over a decade. Interestingly,
this later performance is over three minutes longer than that from 1956
with each of the four movements (apart from the cheeky scherzo for wind
and brass) taking about a minute longer here. The lovely string Cavatina
(track 5) is deeply felt with perhaps a touch more gravity than in 1956.
I found it a most affecting account and the high spirits of the final
Toccata (track 6) are infectious. Not surprisingly, what I assume was
a Promenade concert audience received the performance with great enthusiasm.
Bax’s Oboe Quintet dates from 1922. When Leon Goossens
gave the first performance two years later he was partnered by the Kutcher
Quartet whose cellist was John Barbirolli. It’s not quite clear exactly
when Barbirolli made this arrangement of a work he much admired but
it was after Bax’s death. The first performance was given by the artists
we hear on this CD at a 1967 Promenade concert (was it, I wonder, the
same concert from which the Vaughan Williams performance on this disc
Sonically, the recording of the Bax is the least satisfactory
on the CD. It’s rather reverberant and the performers sound to be in
the middle of a large shed! The way the sound is balanced means that
occasionally the soloist is slightly swamped by the accompaniment. The
first movement is very typical of Bax’s lyrical, rhapsodic style. The
start of the slow movement has a couple of bits of shaky intonation
in the violas as the players strive for expressiveness but these slips
don’t mar the overall effect of this reflective movement. The finale
is a perky jig in Bax’s Irish vein. This is not an entirely flawless
performance but its inclusion is welcome nonetheless.
The Delius piece gets an affectionately phrased, sultry
performance which is full of atmosphere. All the stops are pulled out
for Walton’s Crown Imperial (one of the very best of all ceremonial
marches, I think). The big tune of the trio is perhaps a bit on the
slow side but the second time round the extra brass and the Albert Hall
organ produce a real frisson.
This most enjoyable disc ends with something a bit
special; what I assume is a private recording, on shellac, taken from
the ceremonial re-opening of the Free Trade Hall, Manchester. This took
place in the presence of the then Queen Elizabeth, later the Queen Mother,
after the hall had been renovated following wartime damage. The proceedings
included a short concert by Barbirolli and the Hallé which concluded
with Kathleen Ferrier leading the singing of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’.
with memorable intensity. Barbirolli sets a stately tempo but this is
entirely appropriate for Ferrier’s dignified, refulgent tones. How thrilled
JB would have been at the reappearance for general circulation of this
vignette by a singer whom he adored. There is surface noise but it can’t
detract from the nobility and sincerity of the performance. The liner
notes quote a contemporary review that "lovers of the tune will
fear that never again can they hope to hear it in such glory."
Well now, thanks to the Barbirolli Society and BBC Legends, they can.
The liner notes are by Michael Kennedy, in itself a
guarantee of excellence. He tells us all we need to know about the circumstances
of each recording but also manages to say more about the music itself
than is often the case with a BBC Legends release. Subject to the caveats
above, the sound quality in most items is pretty good but none of the
performances is compromised by the sound.
This is a heart-warming collection which consistently
demonstrates the essential humanity of Barbirolli’s music making and
his innate sympathy for the music he performed. I heartily commend this
CD to all admirers of this great British conductor.