This Barbirolli/Hallé release devoted entirely to British music is generously filled and intelligently planned. It begins with the British National Anthem, given a full-blooded rendering of the kind it rarely receives in concert these days. It is surely better to do it with conviction or not at all and Barbirolli invests it here with genuine patriotic fervour. Rawsthorne’s Street Corner Overture finds the conductor in boisterous mood. This is a spirited, impetuous and vibrant account, distinguished by bravura horn playing and some fine characterisation from the woodwinds. It makes a brilliant curtain-raiser to the programme.
Vaughan Williams dedicated his Eighth Symphony to "Glorious John" and some of the pride Barbirolli took from that honour ennobles this compelling performance given some eleven years after he premiered the work with the Halle in 1955. The opening variations are each given their own special character, Barbirolli enjoying incidental pleasures along the way rather than going for the sort of long line to be found in Haitink’s recent version for EMI, for example. The Scherzo alla Marcia is quirky without sounding gawky and the Hallé brass section is on particularly good form. The Hallé strings dig deep into the notes of the following Cavatina, lending it a glorious gravitas and profundity unmatched on record. The Finale’s ’spiels and ’phones are remarkably clear and well-defined for a live recording of thirty-five years ago. Like the Finale of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, this is a joyful movement - bordering on hysteria - and can seem rather trivial and anti-climactic if not handled with the utmost care and taste. Barbirolli brings unshakeable conviction and style, rounding off the work with a musical version of the defiant nod to camera he was wont to give in televised interviews. A persuasive account, brimming with personality and dripping with nostalgia: a vibraphone can sound outdated, queasy and rather embarrassing these days - the aural equivalent of brylcream - but in the symphony’s outer movements, it conjures up post-war, cold-war Britain as vividly as Mahler’s horn calls and cowbells trigger an Austrian mountainside.
Barbirolli’s own arrangement for solo oboe and string orchestra of Bax’s Oboe Quintet is graced by the musicianship of Evelyn Rothwell, expressive and virtuosic in equal measure. The central movement may require a sweet tooth, but the dance-like Finale is bold and generous, the Hallé strings absolutely fearless in their initial attack. Delius’s ‘Cuckoo’ is remarkable for the painstaking dynamic shading Barbirolli asks for and gets from his devoted players. A rapt and evocative reading - vulnerable, too. By contrast, the contribution of the Royal Military School of Music Trumpeters and Band only serves to weigh down an already unconscionably ponderous and stiff-limbed interpretation of Walton’s Crown Imperial.
Lending some symmetry to a well-planned programme, the disc ends with an historical performance of Elgar’s ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, recorded at the opening ceremony of the rebuilt Free Trade Hall on 16 November 1951. It is sung with simple dignity by Kathleen Ferrier as a welcome antidote to the empty spectacle of the Last Night of the Proms. Here, in its post-war context, you feel the words actually meant something and only the hardest of hearts would remain unmoved by this emotionally charged rendering.
Allowances must be made for tape hiss on the last track, but otherwise the disc sounds remarkably well for its age and diverse provenances. Highly recommended to all British music lovers. More home-grown repertoire from this distinguished musical partnership in future BBC Legends releases would be a splendid prospect – what about all those Cheltenham Festival world premieres and subsequent Proms performances given by these forces?