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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 3 in D minor (1877 version, ed. Nowak)* [52’46"]
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)

Tannhäuser: Overture and Venusberg Music** [25’30"]
Hallé Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli
Rec. Free Trade Hall, Manchester *18 December 1964; **3 October 1969 ADD
BBC LEGENDS BBCL 4161-2 [78’40"]

 

Bruckner may not be the first composer whose name one associates with Sir John Barbirolli. But, as Lyndon Jenkins points out in his interesting sleeve-note, he conducted the Seventh in 1939 and, over time, took the Fourth, Eighth and Ninth into his repertoire. BBC Legends have already issued recordings of Barbirolli in the latter two symphonies. I wonder if any recordings exist of the Fourth and Seventh. I’m sure they would be well worth hearing.

I wonder if the Third was the last Bruckner symphony that JB took up? He gave three concert performances of it with the Hallé in September 1963 and this performance was given a few weeks later as a ‘live’ event but with no audience present.

It’s almost impossible to listen to a performance of a Bruckner symphony without running into the often-vexed question of performing versions and this is no exception. Bruckner revised the symphony several times after its initial composition in 1872/3. As I understand it, he first revised it in 1874 before undertaking a more extensive revision in 1876/7. This version of the score was re-published in 1950, edited by Fritz Oeser. In 1888/9 there was a further significant revision, involving some cuts in the text. This edition, first published in 1890, is the one on which the Eulenburg miniature score is based.

The documentation accompanying this Barbirolli recording states that the edition used is "Version 1877. Edition Leopold Nowak." Lyndon Jenkins, a very knowledgeable critic and writer, asserts that JB "performed (basically) the 1877 version, although a note in the programmes for his three public concerts stated that he had ‘restored some excisions in the orchestral material previously used at Hallé concerts.’" I hesitate to disagree with Mr. Jenkins. However, the only copy of the score that I could access when listening to this recording was the Eulenburg version of the 1890 score and, as far as I can tell, this is the text that Barbirolli plays. (The 1877 text, which is used by Haitink, includes music not in the Eulenburg score.)

What of the performance itself? Well, the first thing to say is that unfortunately it is somewhat hobbled by the recorded sound. The recording conveys little if any atmosphere and, more seriously, on my equipment at least the sound was constricted and rather shrill at climaxes. The recording, therefore does the Hallé players few favours in terms of putting any sheen or glow on their playing. However, it must also be said that the playing itself displays some fallibility and occasional roughness.

I found the first movement disappointing. Barbirolli doesn’t really give the music enough time to breathe. I don’t think he makes quite enough of the luftpausen when they occur, either. For comparison I put on Bernard Haitink’s 1988 recording with the Vienna Philharmonic. Haitink uses the Oeser edition of the 1877 score, which, as mentioned above, is longer than that of the 1890 revision. This, in part, accounts for Haitink taking 61’41" to play the symphony. Also he tends to favour broader speeds than Barbirolli. The slower tempi are not to the music’s detriment, however. Haitink’s judgement of tempo seems well-nigh faultless and the music unfolds naturally and inevitably. His reading of the first movement in particular is much more subtle and satisfying than Barbirolli’s somewhat robust approach. As I say, I was disappointed by Barbirolli’s traversal of this movement, which strikes me as a bit impetuous at times.

Happily, matters improve thereafter, In the second movement Barbirolli is again appreciably swifter than Haitink but here I find that I like the flowing tempo that he adopts; mind you, I warm to Haitink’s more measured approach too and find it just as satisfying. Sadly, Barbirolli’s performance is once again rather compromised by the recording, especially when the music gets louder.

This is also true of the scherzo where Bruckner makes much play with dynamic contrasts and as recorded the louder passages sound coarse. However, the music-making itself is good. I loved the Viennese lilt that JB imparts to the trio, reminding us how he excelled in the waltz music of that city. There’s also an infectious inflection to the second subject of the finale (try track 4, 1’04") where Barbirolli gets his violins to deliver a delightful Viennese hesitation and a touch of portamento. The traversal of the finale is a success.

Five years on, in somewhat better sound, JB and his orchestra recorded the Overture and Venusberg Music from Tannhäuser for the BBC. Given the Wagnerian associations with Bruckner’s Third this makes an apposite coupling. It’s well done, too, with nobility in the overture and abandon in the Bacchanale.

There have to be reservations about this release, especially concerning the sound in the Bruckner. That said, admirers of Barbirolli, among whom I very definitely count myself, will be glad to have this rare and unexpected opportunity to hear him in a less familiar Bruckner symphony.

John Quinn



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