> Barbirolli - Rawsthorne, Vaughan Williams, Bax etc...[JQ]: Classical CD Reviews- Sept 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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The British National Anthem* [1’12"]
Alan RAWSTHORNE (1905-1971): Street Corner Overture** [5’06"]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958): Symphony No 8 in D minor*** [28’57"]
Arnold BAX (1883-1953): Oboe Quintet (arr. Barbirolli)**** [17’54"]
Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934): On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring***** [6’57"]
William WALTON (1902-1983): Crown Imperial: A Coronation March* [7’00"]
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934): Land of Hope and Glory****** [4’19"]
*The Trumpeters and Band of the Royal Military School of Music, Kneller Hall
****Evelyn Rothwell (oboe)
******Kathleen Ferrier (contralto); The Hallé Choir
The Hallé Orchestra conducted by Sir John Barbirolli
Recordings: * and ***** Royal Albert Hall, London, 19 November 1969; ** Royal Festival Hall, London 24 April 1968; *** Royal Albert Hall, London, 11 August 1967; **** BBC Studios, London, 13 November 1968; ****** Free Trade Hall, Manchester, 16 November 1951
BBC Legends BBCL 4100-2 [73’19"]

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 great fun.

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 was taken?).

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.

John Quinn

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