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Barbirolli at the Proms
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68 (1876) [42:21]
Franz Josef HAYDN (1732-1809)
Die Schöpfung (The Creation) (1798); And God Created Man…In Native Worth  [5:33]
L’Isola Disabitata  (The Uninhabited Island) – overture (1779) [6:59]
David Galliver (tenor)
Hallé Orchestra/John Barbirolli
rec. Royal Albert Hall, 24 August 1954
GUILD GHCD 2320 [55:30]


We know Barbirolli’s symphonic Brahms best from his 1966-67 Vienna cycle. That was a rather enervated quartet of performances by common consent though there were rewarding things about it. But he did record the last two symphonies with the Hallé and made a fine New York 78 set of the Second.

It’s no great surprise then to find that this live 1954 Proms performance of the C minor is altogether a more lithe, vital and convincing document than the one with the Vienna Philharmonic made over a decade later. Tempo transitions are managed more effectively and the directional curve of the music making is very much tensile and determined. In fact it displays an urgency pretty much missing from that later performance and indeed from the studio recording that Furtwängler made in Vienna seven years previously. Barbirolli controls the opening movement with real symphonic power and control but it’s in the slow movement that he is most characteristically himself. This has surging accelerandi and an operatic intensity that binds the music to the lyric rather than the central European philosophic axis – not an absolute of course but it’s tempting to make the distinction in the light of the Italianate lyricism of his conducting here. The finale is taken at a fine tempo and Barbirolli avoids rhetorical excesses and bombast, especially brass bombast. There is a small amount of sectional indiscipline and lack of optimum blending. And there’s some slight tape distortion, which can be heard most audibly in exposed wind statements. But I wouldn’t make too much of these things – they’re minor.

The coupling consists of Haydn. Barbirolli makes a dashing, big band show in the fast sections of the overture to L’Isola Disabitata. This was a very obscure piece for him to parade at the time – and even sleeve note writer and Barbirolli authority David Ll. Jones can find no other performance of it by the conductor. Nor, rather amazingly, did Barbirolli ever perform The Creation in its entirety – only excerpts. So quite what galvanized him to programme these two at the Proms is really anyone’s guess. Gulliver sings well – a lyric tenor essentially but with sufficient weight to cope with any declamation put his way. I note he sang in Part I of Gerontius when Barbirolli performed it before Pope Pius XII in 1958.

Concert programmes were longer then, even in 1954. The rest of this Prom concert included Haydn’s Symphony No.104 and Brahms’s Double Concerto with Endre Wolf and André Navarra. The former work was a great favourite of Barbirolli’s and he recorded it twice on 78s. The Brahms he recorded with Campoli and Navarra. Even so I’m sure admirers would welcome the rest of this Prom concert – actually, assuming it still exists, it would have made a good two-for-the-price-of-one double CD set.

Jonathan Woolf



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