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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 6 in A minor (1904) [84:11] ¹
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Ein Heldenleben (1899) [50:34]
London Symphony Orchestra/John Barbirolli
New Philharmonia Orchestra/John Barbirolli ¹
rec. Studio No1, Abbey Road 1969 (Strauss) and Kingsway Hall, London 1967 (Mahler)
EMI CLASSICS 3652852 [72:04 + 62:49]


Not new, of course. The same coupling was last on EMI 569349-2 and in this form was issued a decade or so ago. The Mahler has also been conjoined with Ein Heldenleben on CZS5 69349-2 and with Metamorphosen on CZS7 67816-2 – a Rouge et Noir release. This preferred coupling however seems now to be No.6 with Heldenleben.

They are both late recordings and both highly controversial. The Strauss was made in 1969 and was a work Barbirolli had been playing for over thirty years. But it’s cast very much in his “late period” manner when it comes to tempi. The LSO has to cope with a battery of slow speeds. It’s not surprising at all that Barbirolli clocks in at over eleven minutes slower than Strauss himself in his own performance. But even so this is still, objectively speaking, a recording for which one needs to feel some sort of emotional engagement with the conductor’s approach, otherwise it will seem highly fractured and unsympathetically unenergised. The opening paragraph for instance stands as if in mid-air with a constant sense of retardation of rhythm. The deliberation naturally is itself deliberate and part of Barbirolli’s structural plan. The LSO’s leader John Georgiadis plays with great imagination and concentration – he’s on record as having admired Barbirolli both as conductor and personality - and he sounds generally unflustered by the demands placed on him.

Questions of tempo aside there is a great deal to admire in the nature of the phrasing, both preparation and execution, and the strong orchestral response. Climaxes are powerful and the brass sounds especially commanding. The harp rings out. In terms of emotional response this might best be characterised as a reading of grandeur, nobility but a certain weary acceptance.

Its companion, Mahler 6, on this two disc set sports that famous and witheringly slow first movement. It shares with Heldenleben the feeling that these are utterly inimitable readings and ones so almost defiantly personalised that they belong in a sub-category of their own. Barbirolli’s take on the first movement remains sui generis and at times almost bafflingly unidiomatic in its rejection of Mahlerian markings and forward momentum. What is sometimes glossed in analysis of this performance is that the very steady tempo Barbirolli asserts in the opening is largely reinforced in the slow movement too, though to a lesser extent. The point is architectural-emotive, I suppose, and however much one may reject Barbirolli’s sense of the symphony, his remains a performance of great consistency, overwhelming candour and indelibly pessimistic direction. Technical frailties do intrude from time to time, especially in the finale, but they are minor; the New Philharmonia generally acquits itself with distinction helped by the sympathetically warm recording.

Jonathan Woolf 


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