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Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868) Petite Messe Solenelle (Orchestra version)* [76í01"]
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901) Un Ballo in Maschera, Act III: Eri Tu?** [5í06"]
Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893) Ring Out, Wild Bells (Tennyson)** [3í46"]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921) Samson et Dalila: Mon Coeur síouvre à ta voix*** [5í48"]
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883) Parsifal: Grail Scene, Act 1 (incomplete)**** [24í58"]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949) Lieder: Verführung***** [7í09"]; Gesang der Apolloprieterin***** [4í46"]; Salomé: Final Scene***** [15í55"]
*Ria Ginster (soprano); Bruna Castagna (mezzo); Charles Kullman (tenor); Leonard Warren (baritone)
** Lawrence Tibbett (baritone); *** Kathryn Meisle (mezzo);
**** Norman Cordon (bass); Richard Bonelli (baritone); ***** Rose Pauly (soprano)
New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra/John Barbirolli; ** and *** Detroit Symphony Orchestra/John Barbirolli; *Westminster Choir
Recordings made in Carnegie Hall, New York except ** and *** (venue unknown)
Recording dates: *9 April 1939; **29 December 1940; *** 6 June 1938; **** 17 April 1938; ***** 24 February 1938 AAD
GUILD HISTORICAL GHCD 2254/5 [76í01" + 69í37"]

I was very keen to hear these recordings for two reasons. Firstly I am a great admirer of Barbirolli and one who agrees, on the evidence that Iíve read and heard, that his New York period was nowhere near as disastrous as has been claimed in some quarters. Secondly, I am very interested in the American orchestral scene in the 20th century. Furthermore, the main work on the set is a piece that I didnít even know had been in Barbirolliís repertoire. However, although the set is of great interest there are some significant caveats to any recommendation.

Barbirolli here performs the orchestral version of the Petite Messe Solenelle made by Rossini himself. I must admit to some ambivalence about this version. On the one hand it does add colour and variety to the piece as compared with the original accompaniment for two pianos and harmonium. On the other hand, the orchestral forces and the full-sized choir that are also required change the character of the work completely. It becomes a public, operatic work; at the première there was a chorus of just eight singers besides the quartet of soloists.

The performance captured here was the American première of the complete work in this version. Rossini overtures featured regularly in Barbirolliís concert programmes throughout his career and he conducted The Barber of Seville for the British National Opera Company in 1928. However, I donít know if JB had conducted the Mass before or, indeed, whether it was a score to which he returned. He conducts with sweep and vigour and thereís evidence of some warm orchestral phrasing. The choir sings enthusiastically. In his notes London Green candidly admits that the solo quartet is "a varied group." To my ears the young Leonard Warrenís singing is free and forthright but it sounds a little short on subtlety. Again, Bruna Castagnaís mezzo is a powerful voice with lots of presence. Iíll bet she was a formidable Azucena. However I would have welcomed much more light and shade than she appears to offer here. Charles Kullman sings the ĎDomine Deusí with an appropriate ring but he comes across as a pretty one-dimensional singer. Iíd agree with Mr. Green that Ria Ginster is the best of the soloists; she sings with more imagination than her colleagues. The brief biographies of the soloists mention their operatic experience, though Ginster was, apparently, a noted lieder singer. It did cross my mind to wonder how much experience of concert singing, especially in oratorio, each of them had.

The main drawback to this recording, is the sound quality. Itís clearly been a painstaking labour of patience and love to restore the original source materials. There is pretty much omnipresent surface noise which at its best is like a gauze curtain in front of the performers. At its worst - for example at the start of the Credo (track 8) - thereís an abundance of crackle and the sound is very distant. I regret to say that itís a long time since Iíve been so aware of sonic limitations when listening to an historic release.

The same is true for much of the second disc, which is quite correctly entitled "Barbirolli Rarities". I wonder, for example, are there are any other examples of him working with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra? Unfortunately, the sound quality is so very poor that one cannot really form any judgement at all about the performances. The orchestral sound is distant and constricted and there is a good deal of surface noise. Though sonic matters are marginally better in the case of the excerpts from Parsifal the improvement is, sadly, only marginal. So once again Iíd be wary of passing any judgement on the quality of the performances.

Happily, the Strauss items are preserved in much better sound. Indeed, the sound in these is, by some distance, the best in the whole set, which is ironic since these performances are chronologically the earliest. I would also venture to suggest that Rose Pauly is also the best singer on display in the whole set. She sings the two lieder very well indeed and is splendidly supported by Barbirolli. The closing scene from Salomé is searingly dramatic. In passing, itís worth noting that Barbirolli plunges straight into the music at a white-hot temperature, clearly galvanising the orchestra; that canít be an easy thing for even the most experienced of conductors to do. Pauly conveys superbly the frenzy and desperate lust of the young Salomé and sounds credible as a young (ish) girl. She sounds hypnotically evil at ĎAch! Ich habe deinen Mund geküsstí (Track 15) and then rises to a stunning vocal climax before JB sweeps the music to a hectic close. No wonder members of the audience shouted "bravo!"

How to evaluate this pair of CDs? Iím thrilled to have heard the Strauss. The Rossini is an interesting addition to Barbirolliís discography but it would be idle to pretend that the sound quality is not a serious drawback. The remaining items are, frankly, of much less interest. The documentation and presentation are up to Guildís usual very high standards though a text and English translation is provided for the Rossini only. The set will be of interest to admirers of Barbirolli but I would strongly advise sampling the discs fairly extensively before committing to a purchase.

John Quinn

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