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Barbirolli: New York Philharmonic - Live Recordings 1937-1943
César FRANCK (1822-1890)
1. Symphony in D minor [37:23]
Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
2. Benvenuto Cellini – Overture [10:11]
Charles GRIFFES (1884-1920)
3. The White Peacock [5:54]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
4. Ibéria (Images) [19:11]
5. King John – Overture [8:39]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
6. Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra in A minor, Op. 102 [29:57]
Arthur BENJAMIN (1893-1960)
7. Overture to an Italian Comedy [5:40]
8. Concerto Grosso [17:12]
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
9. Symphony No. 5: Adagietto (incomplete) [4:46]
Albert Spalding (violin), Gaspar Cassadó (cello)
Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra of New York/Sir John Barbirolli
rec. 15 October 1939 (1); 30 October 1938 (2,3); 14 November 1937 (4); 15 March 1942 (5); 26 March 1939 (6); 20 April 1941 (7); 23 February 1943 (8); 17 December 1939 (9). Venue(s) not stated – Carnegie Hall, New York?
GUILD GHCD2330/31 [75:21 + 71:51]

In 1936 Arthur Judson, the legendary General Manager of the Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra of New York caused something of a sensation by offering a young, largely unknown British conductor a ten-week engagement. This would have been a daunting enough prospect under any circumstances but the fact that Judson wanted this young man to take the place of Toscanini, who had just acrimoniously resigned the orchestra’s podium, made the challenge even greater. However, it was a challenge that John Barbirolli accepted and within a few weeks of his arrival in New York he had made such an impression that he was named the orchestra’s permanent conductor, a post he held until 1943.
Barbirolli suffered a torrid time at the hands of some of the New York critics and a legend grew up that his time there had been a failure. Over time the record has been set straight, partly through the work of JB’s biographer, Michael Kennedy. Mr Kennedy has made it abundantly clear that Barbirolli had enjoyed the respect and affection of the majority of the orchestra and of most of the New York public. In recent years a steady stream of recordings has been issued which further attests to the excellence of much of Barbirolli’s work in New York and to the evident rapport between conductor and players. This well-filled set from Guild offers further proof of Barbirolli’s New York achievements.
These are off-air recordings of broadcasts of live concerts. Presumably acetates are the source and it has to be said that the sound quality is variable. The recording of the Franck symphony is perhaps the most sonically compromised: there’s a good deal of surface noise, the sound crumbles and distorts at climaxes and the bass often booms. Yet, notwithstanding those qualifications, the quality of the music-making shines through. Anyone with an ear for fine playing or conducting will find the pluses far outweigh the sonic minuses.
The Franck Symphony is not a favourite of mine but I enjoyed this performance. Barbirolli conducts with zest and flair. He generates great tension in the slow introduction to the first movement; in his hands it’s as brooding as I’ve heard it. Then, when the main allegro is reached (2:59), he makes the music turbulent and purposeful. In short, it’s an impassioned reading. I also like the quite fleet tempo that he adopts for the slow movement, which prevents the music from becoming bogged down. The finale is one of the most bombastic symphonic movements I know but I welcomed Barbirolli’s energy and sense of freedom. The New York audience clearly appreciated the performance and I’m not surprised.
In his very interesting notes Robert Matthew-Walker states that Barbirolli never recorded Ibéria commercially. Actually, I’m not sure that’s correct for in the discography in his first edition of his biography of JB - I haven’t seen the revised edition - Kennedy lists a recording made with the New York orchestra on 7 February 1938. He even supplies Victor and HMV matrix numbers. However, I’m not aware that that recording has ever made it onto CD so this present collection still offers a precious opportunity to Barbirolli enthusiasts. It’s a colourful score and eminently suited to JB. He brings a fine snap to the rhythms of the first section, Par les rues et par les chemins and in the following Les parfums de la nuit he generates an atmosphere that beautifully combines sultriness and delicacy. In all of this he’s aided by some very sensitive orchestral playing. The final movement is entitled Le matin d’un jour de fête. At the start Barbirolli realises very successfully Debussy’s depiction of the slow awakening of the day but then conveys all the vibrancy and gaiety of a town en fête. A most enjoyable performance.
The other substantial work in the anthology is Brahms’s Double Concerto. Here Barbirolli, always a good Brahms conductor, especially in his younger days, has the benefit of a fine pair of soloists. The American violinist, Albert Spalding (1888-1953) is well paired with the Spanish cellist and one-time Casals pupil, Gaspar Cassadó (1897-1966). These three fine musicians combine to give an account of the first movement that’s a judicious mixture of ardour and warm lyricism. In the second movement a welcome forward momentum is maintained but this never compromises the essential songfulness of the music. And the finale, in which Brahms is in unbuttoned mode, is nicely turned by all concerned.
The shorter items include a couple of rarities. The percussion is over-prominent at times in the Benjamin overture – a fault of the engineers, I’m certain – but despite crumbly sound Barbirolli’s bright and breezy account of this engaging piece survives. I didn’t know the Castelnuovo-Tedesco piece and I can’t say that it impressed me greatly. However, Barbirolli plays it for all it’s worth, most especially the soaring, romantic string tune that appears at 1:48. The Berlioz overture is done with real panache.
The last track of all is an intriguing and tantalising fragment. Later in his life Barbirolli became a distinguished Mahler conductor. At the time of his New York sojourn, however, he had done little Mahler and in his concert of 17 December 1939 he played not the complete Fifth symphony but rather the celebrated Adagietto in isolation. The beginning and end of the performance have not survived but even so there’s enough to hear to establish that, thirty years before his wonderful EMI recording, Barbirolli had a real feeling for this movement. He gets the New York strings to play with great ardour for him and it’s a crying shame that only the torso of this performance has come down to us.
As I said at the outset, the sound quality on these CDs is variable but the remastering engineer, Peter Reynolds, has done a terrific job in restoring these old recordings. Now, thanks to Guild, in association with the Barbirolli Society, we have a further opportunity to re-evaluate JB’s work in New York. A failure in New York? I don’t think so.
John Quinn


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