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Sir John Barbirolli
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)

Symphony No.5 in B flat major D485 (1816)
Symphony No.8 in B minor Unfinished D759 (1822)
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)

Symphony No.40 in G minor K550 (1788)
Hallé Orchestra/John Barbirolli
Recorded Royal Albert Hall August 1968 (D485), BBC Studios December 1965 (D759) and September 1962 (K550)
BBC LEGENDS BBCL 4120-2 [73.57]


Even for the confirmed Barbirolli admirer Ė and I am one Ė there will be moments, I suspect, of unease listening to this latest release in the BBC Legends series. Most centre on the performance of the Fifth Symphony and parts of the Mozart, though much less so there. So letís deal with the specifics of the Fifth first. It was recorded at the Royal Albert Hall during the 1968 Proms season and the rest of the concert comprised the Elgar Cello Concerto with Vladimir Orloff, the JB Bax Oboe Quintet transcription and Sibeliusí Fifth Symphony. I believe all these items have been released in one form or another Ė the Bax in the BBC series and the Elgar on Doremi. It may be the microphone placement or the acoustic but the Symphony does open in a rather soft-grained way; the contrastive material that follows is good with nicely scaled dynamics and lower string accents and for portamento lovers there are a number to excite curiosity here. My abiding impression is one of affection but not distinction. Comparison with Beecham in the slow movement shows that whilst the older man could certainly be mannered in his phrasing, as his later Mozart recordings can show, his Schubert was frequently beautifully phrased. Barbirolli by comparison sounds very slightly manicured; it all sounds rather too rehearsed as well. I like the rest of the performance rather better but itís not a great one by any means.

That is not a criticism that can easily be levelled at the Unfinished, which is deeply impressive. Here we can hear something of what is to be a great conductor and how the seeming spontaneity of lyric flow emanates from a practised musician. The Allegro moderato is exceptionally inward and expressive tinged with barely concealed despair. Barbirolli builds to the climaxes unerringly and there is no sense at all of the somewhat precious phrasing that bedevilled the earlier Symphony. Once those climaxes are reached fortissimi are graded and controlled; horn and lower string playing is distinguished. The end of the movement has a kind of operatic complexity about it that is most moving. And so it is with the Andante con moto where the phrasing is eloquent and unforced, the animation and excitement effortlessly integrated; lyricism is paramount and fine diminuendi are features of the performance. The long lines of the Unfinished Ė at least on these occasions Ė seem to have suited Barbirolli better and they make for a most impressive reading.

I enjoyed the G minor but canít pretend itís in the Schuricht class. The opening is quite slow and quite agitated; a serious view of the movement and seriousness is the name of the game for much of the symphony. The Andante is attractively phrased but it was one of those occasions for me when it seemed just too long. But Barbirolli brings something dark and clogged and persuasive to the Menuetto; itís not at all sweet or polite and the Trio is played for attractive contrast. The finale is commanding.

There is one magnificent performance, one intelligent and thoughtful one and one thatís to me less than stellar. On balance that makes it a difficult choice for the uncommitted listener but for the admirer there wonít be much hesitation, moments of unease or otherwise.

Jonathan Woolf


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