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BARBIROLLI : CONDUCTOR LAUREATE - the authorised biography

by Michael Kennedy

published by the Barbirolli Society

ISBN 1-85580-029-2

paperback 412pp.

£25.99


 

When Michael Kennedy’s biography of Barbirolli appeared in 1971 it was received with justified acclaim. The overriding impression when reading it at the time was the author’s personal affection for and intimate knowledge of the man about whom he was writing (indeed occasionally Kennedy enters the story in the first person). Nothing has changed over thirty years later. I saw the primary task in hand for this review as comparing new with old and nothing more, but instead, and to my great joy, I found myself reading it from cover to cover, relishing both style and content as much, if not more with the passing of the years, as I had done three decades ago. In the mid-1960s I was fortunate enough to catch the last few years of JB at the Hallé during my own student days at the University and the old Royal Manchester College of Music, often attending his rehearsals and, when I could afford it, his concerts. Kennedy’s book vividly awakens and recalls those visual and aural experiences, for to watch Barbirolli conduct was as fascinating and enthralling as it was to listen to him. As the singer John Goss perceived of the young Barbirolli way back in 1926, ‘He has infinite delicacy. He has style’.

The short answer to any reader wishing to know whether or not the book is worth buying for its differences alone is an unequivocal ‘yes’. All the 78 photographs are completely different from the 35 in the first edition, and apart from some blocks, they are also chronologically, and conveniently for the reader, placed at the relevant point in the biography. Malcolm Walker’s comprehensive discography (1911-1970) has been dropped in favour of one which lists only those CDs released by the Barbirolli Society, but there is a promise that ‘The Complete Discography of Sir John Barbirolli will be published by the Society in 2004’. Typo spotters will have a hard time of it, though Marjorie Barbirolli (JB’s first wife, singer Marjorie Parry needs a further index entry for page 159, Emmie Tillett has none despite being mentioned on page 193, the date April 20th is missing for the letter beginning ‘Rather a lovely concert tonight’ on page 158, and an extra ‘i’ extends the year to a thirteenth month on page 153). Readers may also like to know that the unnamed fourth person in the upper photograph on page 205 is Kathleen Ferrier’s doctor Reginald Hilton. Publishers MacGibbon & Kee insisted on cuts back in 1971. Presumably all these have been restored, and while the bulk of them tend to be letters, there is also material which is missing from the first edition as the rest of this review will describe.

According to Jelka Delius, her husband thought Barbirolli’s performance of his cello sonata was ‘not very well played’ in a 1922 broadcast, while a notice of the same event in the Daily Telegraph provided a detailed description of his rendition of Elgar’s cello concerto accompanied by pianist Harold Craxton. Barbirolli’s activities as a chamber musician are also restored, with Phyllis Tate’s quartet in 1923 and as a member of the Music Society String Quartet on a tour to Spain in 1926. His activities at BNOC (British National Opera Company) are covered in more detail such as repertoire and venues in 1927. As for new letters, there are some to the critic Charles Parker containing illuminating references to Nikisch and Meistersinger at Bayreuth (1933), and to Evelyn Rothwell, such as one from early in their relationship (June 1934), a poignant description of Alexander Mackenzie’s funeral (April 1935), and an account of the problems of wind intonation and ensemble encountered in a recording session with Edwin Fischer of Mozart’s piano concerto K.482 (1935). New material on the love-hate relationship with Toscanini begins with a letter at the same time (summer 1935) describing a two-hour meeting with the combustible maestro, but on this occasion Barbirolli was touched by the Italian’s reaction to the details he provided of Elgar’s death the year before. According to writer and critic Richard Aldrich, while Toscanini was not very good at programming his New York Philharmonic concerts, Kennedy is revelatory on how the hugely influential American agent Arthur Judson had a considerable input into Barbirolli’s initial concerts with the NYPO, with hardly any of the new appointee’s ideas getting past the first hurdle. On the other hand, Judson drew the line at telling Toscanini what or what not to do. If, as revealed above, John Goss astutely spotted the young Barbirolli’s talent, so did Yehudi Menuhin in America according to a letter from his father Moshe to Fred Gaisberg in 1936.

The whole American episode and its musico-political cauldron, with his homeland soon to be at war, and the question of the compulsory taking of American citizenship if he wanted to stay, put Barbirolli into an impossible situation. As Judson himself said, ‘I made two mistakes. I engaged you and you made a success’. But any notions that he lowered standards after Toscanini’s reign, that he was overawed by or cowed by a hostile orchestra are completely without foundation, as emerging recordings now testify. The letter about Elgar’s ‘practically unknown and certainly misunderstood’ violin concerto after Barbirolli conducted it with Heifetz (‘played with not quite enough hurt’) is now joined by a new, brief but succinct one (2 March 1939). ‘The Enigma created the greatest enthusiasm and I confess I had a little cry before I was fit to have the people come and see me after the concert. There are moments in this music which touch me beyond all words!’ He also had kind words a few weeks earlier for Vaughan Williams’ Pastoral symphony ‘which moves me as I never thought possible’. Since Klemperer died after Barbirolli, the first edition missed the German conductor’s extremely churlish comments in 1972 to his future biographer Peter Heyworth on his colleague’s New York appointment, ‘They treated him worse than he deserved. He wasn’t so bad, even if he wasn’t so good either’. Barbirolli and the NYPO episode is best summed up by the man himself (also new material) when talking of the orchestra. ‘I am so proud of the great artists who under T[oscanini] and others had become so unkind and who seem now to glory in their talents and humanity. Posterity will perhaps judge of my value as a musician, but I am rather grateful that my coming has not only retained their standards of playing (I think it has) but given them a conception of kindliness and happiness’.

Kennedy now includes more details of Barbirolli’s programmes, particularly his third (1939-1940 season and the inclusion of many new American works. As far as British works performed for the first time in America or elsewhere were concerned, those of Britten stand out, in particular the Violin Concerto and the Sinfonia da Requiem. On a lighter note, who of us knew that Judy Garland loved Delius, Mickey Rooney had a penchant for Ravel, or that Edward G Robinson (he of the villainous face) enjoyed turning pages at private chamber music soirées at which Barbirolli played? Also amusing is an account by the widow of one of Barbirolli’s four fellow passengers of the hazardous journey home on a Norwegian freighter in a convoy, and the Lake District walk to Dale Head during a week’s working holiday preparing programmes for the forthcoming season.

We get new insight into the last unhealthy days of conductor Leslie Heward, a sad loss to British music making, but someone, who had he lived, would have been ahead of Barbirolli to receive the timely invitation to Barbirolli to take over the Hallé Orchestra. Neither had we known before that, imitating his esteemed predecessor Hans Richter, he hoped ‘to make Manchester the Vienna of England, with the great symphony orchestra playing for opera as well as in the concert hall’. There are some extracts from Evelyn Barbirolli’s recent book ‘Living with Glorious John’, which provide an interesting insight by two Hallé string players into their conductor’s exacting demands as a string player himself.

Further new letters describe (to Evelyn in 1944) an attack of dysentery in Naples, instructions sent in 1966 to leader Martin Milner on what to rehearse before Barbirolli takes over. There are also some new ones written on his travels in the 1960s to his close friend and correspondent Audrey Napier Smith when he was at last an international conductor, and one to Evelyn’s aunt about his encounter with clothes and jewellery worn by King Charles I on his execution day. Since Robert Beale’s ‘The Hallé: a British orchestra in the 20th century’ appeared in 2000, we have new facts not only about the orchestra’s finances but also revelations of Barbirolli’s selfless demands on its budget. As Kennedy reveals, in 1950, he earned less than Richter half a century before him (a meagre £50 per concert), and by 1967 this sum had risen to a meagre £300 for Manchester dates, £250 for those in provincial towns, and expenses only (which he usually waived) for tours abroad. Only at the end of his life did he have financial worries brought on by the shady activities of his manager, over two years of worries he could have done without considering the serious effect it was having on his health.

This all makes a fascinating, absorbing read, and Michael Kennedy deserves all the praise and accolades he will undoubtedly get. He has improved upon what was already a fine book worthy of the love, admiration and respect he clearly has for his old friend.

Christopher Fifield

 

 



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