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CD: AmazonUK

Hallé Centenary Concert
CD 1
Introduction by Sir Malcolm Sargent [4:51]
Announcement [1:11]
National Anthem [1:09]
Carl Maria WEBER (1786-1826)
Der Freischütz - Overture [9:47]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Concerto No 2 in B flat, Op 83 [46:39]
CD 2
Announcement [1:06]
Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Symphony No 1 in A flat, Op 55 [49:29]
The Hallé and its Conductor - a conversation with Sir John Barbirolli [15:05]
Clifford Curzon (piano); Hallé Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli
rec. all items except conversation 30 January 1958, Free Trade Hall, Manchester. ADD
BARBIROLLI SOCIETY SJB1033-34 [64:06 + 65:54]
Experience Classicsonline

In 2008 Manchester’s Hallé Orchestra celebrated its 150th anniversary with, among other things, an extremely fine recording of Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius (see review). The music of Elgar has occupied an important place in the orchestra’s repertoire over the years. Famously, it gave the first performance of the First Symphony under Richter in 1908. In later years Sir John Barbirolli particularly nurtured and developed the orchestra’s Elgar tradition and more recently it’s been wonderful to find that tradition - and so much else - in such fine fettle under the inspired leadership of the current Music Director, Sir Mark Elder. This pair of CDs takes us back a further fifty years to the orchestra’s centenary season and to the very concert with which that centenary was marked.

The concert was broadcast in full by BBC radio - and televised also - and what we have here is a private recording, presumably off-air, of the entire concert, announcements and all, expertly remastered by Paul Baily. Inevitably there are sonic limitations - the bass is somewhat booming, for example, especially in the reproduction of the piano sound in the concerto and, throughout, the sound of the orchestra can be a bit distant and is not always in consistent focus. However, the overall sound is perfectly acceptable and we can only be grateful that this recording was made, has survived and is now available as a permanent memento of an important date in the Hallé’s history.

The booklet contains a good selection of evocative photographs of the concert and an extensive note. There could be only one choice to write that note. Michael Kennedy has played quite a role in the Hallé’s history over the last five decades or so, not least as its chronicler and as the biographer of Barbirolli. In a fascinating and characteristically readable essay he relates the story of not just this concert but also of the centenary season itself. He was a member of a small informal advisory committee that Barbirolli established to help him plan the season, though as Kennedy puts it, “I don’t remember that we did much advising”. The other members of that little group were Barbirolli himself, the then-General Manager of the Hallé Concerts Society, Kenneth Crickmore, and the critic of what was then the Manchester Guardian newspaper, Colin Mason. Kennedy is the sole survivor of that committee.

As Mr Kennedy relates, the centenary concert programme was chosen with care, though in a sense the music chose itself. The Weber overture had been the opening piece at Charles Hallé’s very first concert with his new orchestra. The Brahms concerto received its second performance in the UK in Manchester with Hallé himself, no mean pianist, playing the solo part. Clifford Curzon - he had not then been knighted - was Barbirolli’s choice as soloist because he’d been the first soloist to play with JB and the reconstituted orchestra back in 1943. Surprisingly, perhaps, the choice of symphony was less automatic. Barbirolli was keen to play the Berlioz Symphonie fantastique, which would have been a most appropriate choice for several reasons. However, as Michael Kennedy says “it was pointed out” to him that the Berlioz had been played at the reopening of the Free Trade Hall in 1951 and that some English music would be highly desirable in the centenary concert, not least the great Elgar symphony, premièred by this very orchestra. I wonder exactly who did the “pointing out”? Though he’d be far too modest to say so, I wouldn’t be surprised if Michael Kennedy himself suggested the Elgar to JB. Whoever was responsible it was a felicitous choice.

There’s an undoubted sense of occasion about the music-making in this concert. It must be noted, however, that the playing is not infallible. The slow opening to the Weber overture is a little shaky in places - perhaps a case of nerves? However, the main allegro of the piece is spirited and one senses the orchestra getting into its collective stride.

There are some minor problems with the Brahms concerto also. There’s a decided tuning discrepancy between the solo horn and the piano at the very start - and this isn’t the only time that there is a tuning lapse during the concert - but I wouldn’t make too much of this beside the sweep and heart of the performance. Recently I reviewed a performance of this same concerto that Curzon gave with the Boston Symphony under Charles Munch in January 1953 and I noted a surprising number of finger-slips by Curzon in the first movement. Happily, this Hallé account is not similarly affected; in fact, Curzon is on pretty impressive form. The piano is rather favoured in the balance and, as previously mentioned, the reproduction of the piano is somewhat bass heavy.

Strongly supported by Barbirolli, Curzon unfolds a commanding yet lyrical account of the concerto. The first movement receives a passionate reading while the second movement is surging and red-blooded. As a cellist himself I’m sure Barbirolli would have appreciated the dignified playing of his principal cellist, Oliver Vella, in the crucial solos during the third movement. JB clearly relishes this lyrical movement and leads a glowing account of it. Curzon’s playing has great poise and poetry but he and Barbirolli certainly don’t treat the movement simply as a dreamy idyll; there’s strength in the playing where Brahms requires it. As befits a celebratory occasion, the finale is lively and high-spirited. Overall, this concerto performance is a fine one, fit to grace the occasion.

Barbirolli was a noted exponent of both Elgar symphonies and I’ve always loved his way with the First, which he did a bit better than the Second, fine though his performances of the latter were. The mixture of splendour and melancholy in the First suited Barbirolli well. It was in the last concert I ever saw him conduct, in Bradford, and some months later it also featured in what was to be his penultimate concert before his death. That superb performance, also with the Hallé, is thankfully preserved for us on BBC Legends (see review) and I share completely Christopher Fifield’s view that this performance ranks as Barbirolli’s best. This 1958 account isn’t quite in that league - the orchestra was in better shape by 1970 - but it’s still a notable achievement.

In I the unfolding of the motto theme is genuinely noble yet unaffected. The main allegro is passionate and has great sweep. Generally JB doesn’t lose momentum in the more reflective stretches, though he takes slowly the passage where the motto returns (6:47) and he’s perhaps just a touch too pensive at this point. Also I think he does linger a little too lovingly over the last couple of minutes, though this is understandable in the context of the occasion. On the other hand, there is powerful turbulence in the passage between 8:43 and 10:00, where one senses dark undercurrents in the music followed by some genuinely fiery playing.

There’s no lack of energy or forward momentum in II and the wondrous transition to III is accomplished in a masterful way. In this great adagio JB is surely in his element. The music sings richly and with nobility. His players rise to the occasion, especially the strings and horns. I found the section from 8:25 to the end of the movement very moving.

At the start of IV Barbirolli conveys a mood of suspense and then when Elgar releases the tension at the allegro the conductor ensures that the music surges powerfully and passionately. There’s great urgency in these pages; indeed, at times the music positively seethes. Between 6:06 and 7:05 Elgar brings back the ghostly march heard at the start of the movement but now gloriously transformed into major key warmth, the harps rippling beautifully. It’s an eye-pricking moment in this performance, though Barbirolli doesn’t do anything other than to observe Elgar’s markings. The lead up to the return of the motto theme, horns to the fore, (from 8:42) is highly charged and then the great theme returns, trailing clouds of glory (9:13). I often think that the orchestral flourishes at this point are attempts to disrupt the progress of the theme, to remind us that triumph can be hard won. Not on this occasion! Here the flourishes decorate the theme and help to impel the symphony to a conclusion of splendour.

This is a very moving performance of the symphony. As Michael Kennedy points out, Barbirolli was keen to celebrate in this concert and, in the whole season, the achievements of his distinguished predecessors, including Hallé himself, Richter and Harty. However, the performance and, indeed, the whole concert, is a potent reminder of the scale of Barbirolli’s own achievement in rebuilding and developing the orchestra in the previous fifteen years.

The scale of that achievement is reinforced by the fascinating conversation that follows the symphony. I’m not sure when this was recorded and broadcast but clearly it was around the same time. Alec Robertson chairs a discussion involving Barbirolli, the aforementioned Kenneth Crickmore and the then-Chairman of the Hallé Concerts Society, Leonard Behrens. Among other things they recall between them Barbirolli’s arrival in Manchester in April 1943 when the magnitude of the task he had taken on became clear. It’s very interesting stuff.

This is an important archive issue. The music-making is of a high order but above all the set provides a fine souvenir of the great partnership between Sir John Barbirolli and the Hallé, one of the most remarkable and important partnerships in British musical history. 

John Quinn

Barbirolli Society website



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