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

This Gemini double is an exact replication of EMI's Forte 569349-2, right down to the 1996 remastering. If you have the previous set, you do not need this one. If you do not already own these performances, these very individual accounts deserve your consideration.
Barbirolli's Mahler 6 is a flawed diamond, but a diamond nonetheless. I have lived with this performance for the last decade or so and, though I am aware of its faults in execution and interpretation, I am drawn back to it often. More often, in fact, than I am drawn to other recordings in my collection which I probably profess to prefer.
The Sixth is Mahler's most despairing symphony and the only one that ends with defeat rather than joyous resolution, rapture or resignation. Barbirolli, so often the master of orchestral warmth, takes Mahler's doom-laden score right to the edge of insanity. In his hands, the vicious march that opens the first movement becomes a bone-racking trudge, with the cellos and basses digging deep into their strings. Even the Alma theme of the first movement offers little respite from the gloom. Really, this beautiful melody should shed a little sunshine in a movement that is written to contrast hope and despair and which ends in the major, but I find Barbirolli's dark clouds compelling.
A sorrowful but lovingly detailed andante follows the first movement, with the rough and nasty scherzo placed third. This order of movements was Barbirolli's preference in live performances. I prefer the scherzo second so that the first two movements balance the fourth, with the andante as the fulcrum. Luckily, the second, third and fourth movements are all on the second CD, so my preferred order of movements is easily re-established without the need to swap CDs too often mid-symphony.
The finale is of a piece with the scherzo and first movement, a deliberately paced and unrelenting essay in desolation. There are more orchestral slips here than in the preceding movements, including a prominent trumpet fluff at about 25 minutes in. No matter. The interpretation holds it together.
Barbirolli's Mahler 6 is unique. It is certainly a very personal conception - some would say a wilful one - but I think that is the reason his performance of this symphony succeeds for me where his Heldenleben fails. Mahler's music is intensely personal and intensely emotional, qualities that give it the resilience to absorb all sorts of interpretative approaches and emerge relatively unscathed, though perhaps viewed from a different angle or in a different light. Without wanting to get in to an argument with Gunther Schuller, I would say that Mahler's symphonies can handle more 'interpretation' than most other works in the symphonic canon. That probably explains why I can simultaneously love Solti's orchestral powerhouse (Decca) and Boulez's clear and almost classical view of the score (Deutsche Grammophon) as much as this terrifying and emotionally draining performance.
Strauss's tone poems are a different matter. This is music of the head rather than the heart and all it really needs is spectacular orchestral playing and a firm hand to shape it. It tolerates fewer indulgences and, in its brilliant scoring, shows up those who cannot play it as a seamless whole.
Barbirolli's way with Strauss's tone poem is, as one would expect, very personal. He lingers lovingly over some details in the score, glosses over others and sacrifices some ensemble balance and precision for atmosphere. If you are familiar with his late recordings of Elgar, you will know what to expect.
On first listening, I found his approach annoying and his interpretation distended. The Hero's Battlefield lumbers and creaks but does not excite, however brilliantly the recording captures the offstage trumpet fanfares. The Hero's Companion, rendered with all care and tenderness by an uncredited John Georgiadis, loses focus and tension at Barbirolli's sluggish tempo.
Subsequent hearings have softened my view of this recording. Barbirolli's affection for this colourful score is obvious and he does create some memorable moments. The sneers and jeers of the critics are brutal, and there is certainly a sense of glowing fulfilment in the final pages. Although there is a lot to appreciate in this performance, other recordings in my collection - including Karajan's 1959 reading on Deutsche Grammophon, Previn's on Telarc, Reiner's on RCA Living Stereo and Kempe's on EMI - are much stronger in conception and eminently more recommendable to anyone primarily interested in this tone poem rather than the conductor.
How to sum up this issue? It is compulsory for Mahlerians, though they may not love it, and essential for Barbirolli fans, who undoubtedly will. A missed opportunity though - an Abbey Road Technology remastering would have tempted collectors to repurchase these old recordings, but as it is this reissue will tempt newcomers only.

Tim Perry



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