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Sir John Barbirolli (1899-1970)
In Rehearsal and Performance
Attrib. Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)

Oboe Concerto in C
Evelyn Rothwell (oboe)
Vancouver Symphony Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli
Recorded in Vancouver, Canada, 1963
VAI DVD 4293 [60:00]

The presentation and packaging of this DVD is best described, as with many of its kind, as minimalist. There are no liner notes other than a bald statement of tracks and performers, while there is a brief biographical note about Sir John Barbirolli and his wife Evelyn Rothwell, who is the oboist on this recording. Absolutely nothing is said about the so-called Haydn Oboe Concerto in C. This work is well-known to oboists, but has long been accepted as spuriously attributed to Haydn. Though it has its attractions, it is nonetheless a pretty unremarkable piece of work, and it is impossible to imagine Haydn having written it. The best guess is probably that it’s by the Czech composer Kozeluch, who flourished in Vienna in the late Classical period.

To anyone who has taken part in or attended a musical rehearsal, this DVD contains nothing in the least bit out of the ordinary. Sir John and Lady Barbirolli have simply turned up for a gentle run-through of a straightforward piece, and the creative temperature remains low. However, Barbirolli’s purposefulness and meticulous preparation, despite the humdrum nature of the music, is impressive, as is his good humour and patience. Mind you, with his wife present – a formidable enough lady in her way! – he was no doubt on his best behaviour! There are some amusing little moments, such as Jubb (as he was known to his Hallé players) having a gentle dig at musicologists thus:

Barbirolli: Now where shall we go from?

Rothwell: How about after the second subject?

Barbirolli: I don’t know what second subjects are – only programme annotators know this….

Talking of Evelyn Rothwell – Lady Barbirolli – it is delightful to hear her once more, and to relish the generosity and musicality of her playing. She was never a flashy note-merchant, and there are hosts of oboists these days with more brilliant techniques. Yet she invested every note she played with character and interest, and had a wonderfully rich and expressive tone.

So there is in fact plenty of interest here for the music-lover, in particular one who admires Sir John. The camera-work is unfussy (a modern director wouldn’t dare hold one angle for such lengthy stretches – more’s the pity!), allowing one to become part, as it were, of the work in progress. The sound, though rough, is good enough to allow us to hear what conductor and soloist are saying, though occasional comments or questions from the band members are not so easy to catch.

There are essentially four tracks, containing the rehearsal of the first movement, then the performance of the three-movement piece. A tiny moment in the great man’s career, perhaps, but nevertheless a significant document in the history of 20th century conducting – and oboe playing - traditions.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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