Sir John Barbirolli’s influence on musical life was enormous and easy, even today, to underestimate. He came back from New York in 1943 to take over the reins of the Hallé from the ailing Leslie Heward. Coincidentally he swapped planes with great actor Leslie Howard of Gone with wind
and Pimpernel Smith
fame; Howard’s plane was shot down.
JB’s time in New York has been reassessed, not least through this site and the suggestion that he failed to follow Toscanini has well and truly been debunked. Our friends in Oxford used to come to us for New Year’s Eve and in 2001 brought their mother, born in Blackpool, not far from where we now live. Coming from a poor background her chances to hear classical music were obviously limited. It was the Hallé under Barbirolli which changed that. When I played some of the recordings, transferred by Dutton, the memories came flooding back; she was by no means alone.
Mark Elder is following that tradition and the huge amount of music in this area of thje North-West of England owes a great deal to people like Sir John and Sir Malcolm Sargent. Beecham also came from near here, St. Helens, and conducted the Hallé at short notice, aged 20 deputizing for the icon that was Hans Richter.
The fact remains that for 27 years the Hallé under Barbirolli set high standards for a provincial orchestra and introduced many people to music they have loved for the rest of their lives.
The main work in this bargain twofer is Elgar’s Symphony No 2
which I consider glorious. This was not how it was received at the first performance, just after the death of the hugely popular Edward VII, to whose memory the Symphony is dedicated. The Times review said it was received with less enthusiasm than expected. The lukewarm response prompted Elgar to remark to Henry Wood immediately upon exiting the stage, "Henry, they don't like it, they don't like it". He complained to W.H. Reed, shortly thereafter, "they sit there like a lot of stuffed pigs". The Manchester Guardian review of the first Hallé performance under Elgar on 23.November 1911 was also not very enthusiastic. However after the Great War, the performance conducted by Sir Adrian Boult with the London Symphony Orchestra on 16 March 1920 was received with "frantic enthusiasm". It stirred Elgar to declare, "I feel that my reputation in the future is safe in your hands". Boult recorded the symphony five times and a live version has recently been released.
Boult’s recording with the BBC SO in Bedford School in 1944 will remain high in listener’s affections and this site’s Resource page details other splendid performances. Among the best are Barbirolli’s two of 1954 and 1964. The latter with the Philharmonia is generally not regarded as strong as the earlier one here, which is in my opinion in the Top Five, which obviously includes Solti’s powerful account.
The 1954 recording is available from at least three sources, EMI (now Warner), this set and Pristine Audio. The latter was reviewed
by Michael Greenhalgh and like John Quinn’s review of this transfer I refer the reader to their judgments, which I go along with. The main point is that I love this piece partly because it’s taken me time to appreciate its subtleties, paralleling its reception by the public. The Enigma
, Pomp & Circumstances
and Violin Concerto
have been huge favourites with me for nearly fifty of my sixty years; this symphony less than fifteen years when I got Boult’s 1970s set on Lyrita
In 1954 Barbirolli was at his height and the orchestra play like angels. You simply must own this recording on any of the three formats but I do find this transfer very good indeed and it’s better value than its rivals. To take one example the intensity of the second movement is so heartfelt as was so much of Elgar’s work - far away from anything approaching jingoism. The playing is just so emotional that I defy anyone not to be moved: a great epitaph to the Peacemaker King.
This review mustn’t resemble Tolstoy’s wonderful “War & Peace”, in length, not quality, so I will be brief on the other works. Cockaigne (In London Town)
appears twice as befits a Londoner, like myself, born in Kingston. They are both very fine even if it’s not a work I play often. When I do, either here will be just the ticket. Enigma
and Introduction and Allegro
are very close to me and as ever are superbly played here.
The special bonus is the recording made at the Opening ceremony of Free Trade Hall, Manchester on 16 November 1951 with the immortal Kathleen Ferrier. On a personal level my grandfather Tom used to hear Kathleen in a church in Blackburn at lunchtimes in the 1930s when he worked in Nelson and Colne. My aunt, still going strong at nearly 91 heard her with Bruno Walter in Edinburgh in 1947 in Das Lied von der Erde
. That must surely have been a UK premiere. I heard her on the BBC Light Programme’s ‘Children’s Favourites’ about 1960. You could say she’s always been part of my musical life. This recording, acetate rumble notwithstanding, is unique and powerful. I owned it previously on a BBC Legend (BBCL 4100-2) “Barbirolli conducts English Works”. That disc has been deleted but it can be bought from Amazon for under a tenner. Words are totally inadequate to describe this performance. It reduces me to tears every time I hear it. Is it because it was so soon after the War with Kathleen’s death less than two years before, the words of A.C. Benson or the tune? It’s probably a combination of the lot and the fact that I’m a huge romantic.
This is therefore a wonderful set, hugely recommended to lovers of music, not just English music. The notes are all they should be, as are the photographs. The one of Sir John and Kathleen, show how tall she was. I also love the hats.
This is a priceless memorial to greatness: composer, conductor, orchestra and singer. Excellently packaged and priced. Buy it today and above all play it.
David R Dunsmore
Previous review: John Quinn
Masterwork Index: Enigma variations
~~ Symphony 2