Barbirolli in New York
Full track listing at end of review
New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli
rec. Carnegie Hall, New York, 1959.

When Barbirolli returned in 1959 to the New York Philharmonic-Symphony, as it still was, sixteen years after he had relinquished chief conductorship of the orchestra to assume leadership of the wartime Hallé, he brought with him four programmes. We hear almost all the items in this four disc set, and the omissions of Gina Bachauer’s Brahms Second Concerto and Weber’s Der Freischütz overture, whilst regrettable, are not earth-shattering.

The Brahms Violin Concerto features soloist Berl Senofsky, the admirably equipped American fiddle player about whom I have written before (review 1, 2, 3). Only now, perhaps, do we see how much depth there was at the time when players such as Senofsky, and Rosand, and Nadien, in their own individual ways, carved out good carers even whilst such as Stern lorded the domestic American scene. Senofsky’s Brahms is strongly projected, and he turns on vibrato usage when necessary. It’s a generously lyric performance, with a beefy finale, and a good collaboration between soloist and conductor.

Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro was a favourite piece of Barbirolli’s, one he recorded several times. It was a work that the composer himself famously never recorded. But he knew of, and admired, Barbirolli’s early 78 traversal, which was always unapologetically big. This New York traversal is similarly large-boned, its defiantly powerful character marked by strong emphases and phrasal sculpting. I happen to find these exaggerated, and more malleably organized in his Sinfonia of London recording, but there’s no doubting the commitment of all concerned.

Barbirolli had recorded Haydn’s Symphony No. 88 in G major in 1953 along with Nos. 83 and 96, all now collected on Dutton CDBP9750. He remained a consistent Haydn performer and when one remembers his Symphony No.104 set, recorded on 78s back in 1928, with his Chamber Orchestra [SJB1899], one realises the discographic extent of his commitment to those symphonies he chose, or was asked, to record. This NY performance is strong, powerful, adept at contrasting vigour with the refined wind writing, and at excavating the drone effects in the minuetto. Alma Mahler was in the audience for the performance of her late husband’s First Symphony. This was another work closely associated with JB’s recording schedule of the time. His 1957 studio traversal [CDSJB1015] is admired, and rightly so. This NY performance has previously been released in a box devoted to ‘The Mahler Broadcasts, 1948-1982’ which I’ve not auditioned, but my colleague John Quinn has, and he makes some important comments on the subject in his own review of this JB box. I like this Barbirolli performance very much; I like the way he keeps things moving in the B section of the second movement, and I like the weary, bleached solo bass tone at the start of the third, and the incrementally exciting, tension-augmenting finale.

Barbirolli’s nemesis, Thomas Beecham, had his Handel arrangements but JB had his An Elizabethan Suite (from The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book) which he often performed. Back in New York in 1942, but unpublished at the time, he had set down a recording [now on ‘The Columbia Masters Volume 4’ - CDSJB1028]. His 1959 reading is inevitably perhaps, slower, but equally full of grandeur and gravity and real string warmth. In November 1957 he performed The Planets in Turin with the RAI Symphony Orchestra [now on SJB1042-43] in his habitual five movement selection (Mars, Venus, Mercury, Uranus and Jupiter only). This New York traversal is much more convincing and secure. One telling point is that he trusts his NY forces to stretch the tempos quite significantly in a couple of movements (especially Venus), whereas he tends to play faster (and safer) in Turin. Note the fine violin solo and warm string tone in Venus.

Vaughan Williams dedicated his Eighth Symphony to Barbirolli [see SJB1021 for the studio inscription, but also, for instance, Aura 181-2 for the Lugano 1961 performance with the touring Hallé]. In Lugano he was rather brisker than in New York, when familiarity with his own orchestra meant that, whilst detailing remained meticulous - and Barbirolli was exacting in rehearsals - the contours of the music were familiar. Yet New York had its own VW tradition in concert and on disc – Mitropoulos and Stokowski to cite just two, who performed his music there; Stokowski had, in fact, performed the Ninth Symphony the previous year [see review] – and Barbirolli’s old orchestra slips into the milieu very adeptly indeed. Once again the strings (solo and unison) play with Barbirolli-rich tone, the flutes are impressively mellifluous – indeed the wind choir is highly characterful throughout – and the performance is notably successful in almost all respects.

The final work is The Dream of Gerontius with Richard Lewis, Maureen Forrester and Morley Meredith. Fortunately the recent arrival of the latest edition of the journal of the Barbirolli Society has illuminated a few things for me regarding JB’s aspirations to record the work. Westminster approached EMI in 1955 to ask if they’d release the conductor to record it for them. EMI refused. Then Walter Legge suggested Barbirolli should record it with the Philharmonia and – wait for it – Christa Ludwig, Nicolai Gedda and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. This was also refused. Legge responded with Richard Lewis. In 1963 JB did perform it with the Philharmonia and Anna Reynolds, Ronald Dowd and Donald Bell. There is a surviving tape and I’m told that Dowd in particular was excellent. In 1964 tests were made at EMI with David Ward, Anna Reynolds, Janet Baker and Forbes Robinson. Of these singers, Barbirolli, who was already soundly displeased by Sargent’s monopoly of the work on disc, was only happy with Baker, who went on to record it with him and with Lewis and Kim Borg.

In New York Lewis is excellent, as ever, as good as in his recording with Sargent, though he’s not as clarion or expressive a singer as his great predecessor, Heddle Nash. I would point to Lewis’s beautiful singing of Novissima hora est as one of the high points of this performance, and Barbirolli’s hugely eloquent moulding of string textures. Maureen Forrester makes a fine impression as the Angel, singing with excellent tone and careful enunciation. Morley Meredith is not on the level of his two colleagues; sample his way with the ‘omnipotent father‘ passage, when his voice goes woolly. It’s a role that really lies too low for him, and he struggles audibly too often. These things are, of course, a question of personal taste, but I prefer Sargent’s lithe way with Gerontius to Barbirolli’s more obviously reverent one. Nevertheless this is another hugely valuable account, to set beside the live Vickers. Let’s hope that the Barbirolli Society, or whoever, can in time give us the 1963 Dowd-Reynolds-Bell.

This admirable box is very well documented, and has some excellently reproduced photographs as well. The restorations have been very well realised as well. I’m sure admirers of the conductor will find this set indispensable.

Jonathan Woolf

see also review by John Quinn

Admirers of the conductor will find this set indispensable.

Full track listing:
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Violin Concerto in D major, op. 77 [41:07]
Berl Senofsky (violin)
rec. 18 January 1959
Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
The Dream of Gerontius
, Op 38 [95:48]
Richard Lewis (tenor); Maureen Forrester (contralto); Morley Meredith (baritone); The Westminster Choir
rec. 25 January 1959
Sir Edward ELGAR
Introduction and Allegro
for String Quartet and String Orchestra, Op. 47 [14:30]
John Corigliano and Leopold Rybb (violins); William Lincer (viola); Laszlo Varga (cello)
rec. 3 January 1959
Josef HAYDN (1732-1809)
Symphony No. 88 in G major [21:00]
rec. 10 January 1959
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 1 in D major [53:14]
rec. 10 January 1959
Arr. Barbirolli
An Elizabethan Suite
(from The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book) [11:59]
rec. 10 January 1959
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
The Planets
- Suite for Large Orchestra (excerpts)
Mars, the Bringer of War [7:28]
Venus, the Bringer of Peace [8:42]
Mercury, the Winged Messenger [3:59]
Uranus, the Magician [6:41]
Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity [8:16]
rec. 18 January 1959
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Symphony No. 8 in D minor [28:38]
rec. 3 January 1959
New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli
rec. Carnegie Hall, New York, 1959.