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
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