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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Resurrection [81:17]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Symphony of Psalms
[23:59]
Victoria Elliot (soprano); Eugenia Zareska (mezzo)
Hallé Choir
Hallé Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli
rec. live, 12 March 1958, Free Trade Hall, Manchester; 28 August, 1957, Edinburgh Festival. ADD. mono.
Original texts and English translations included
BARBIROLLI SOCIETY SJB1078-79 [30:41 + 75:16]

Here is another important release by the Barbirolli Society. The most substantial work is Mahler’s Second Symphony in a performance given as the climax to the Hallé Orchestra’s centenary season in 1958/9. I wonder if this was the first performance of the symphony that Barbirolli conducted. If not, it must have been one of the first because, as Michael Kennedy reminds us in his typically comprehensive and highly readable notes, the conductor only took up Mahler’s music really seriously in the early 1950s, at the urging of Neville Cardus, beginning with performances of the Ninth Symphony in 1954. Thereafter he became an enthusiastic champion of Mahler, playing all the symphonies with the exception of the Eighth and any of the performing editions of the Tenth. To my lasting regret I never saw him conduct Mahler live.

I strongly suspect that the Second Symphony was new to the Hallé Orchestra in 1959 – Barbirolli probably taught it them from scratch: as Mr Kennedy points out he devoted no fewer than 40 hours of rehearsal to the Ninth in 1954. Furthermore this may well have been the first time that many in the audience that night had experienced it live. It must have been quite an occasion and that comes through in the performance. Barbirolli never got the chance to make a commercial recording of this symphony but there’s another live version by him in the catalogue: a performance that he gave in the Philharmonie with the Berliner Philharmoniker in June 1965 (Testament SBT2 1320). It’s interesting to compare the two.

The principal difference arises in the first movement. Barbirolli gets the 1959 reading off to a strong start and this account of the movement is biting and dramatic. He lays out the first few minutes in a very convincing fashion. I part company with him around 11:30, however, where the pace becomes rather too brisk for my liking; it’s very exciting and you really get the feel of a live occasion but it’s a touch frenetic and the music sounds somewhat snatched. The series of huge, percussive tutti chords (at 13:41) are just rushed off their feet and fail to make their impact. Turn to the 1965 version and, perhaps with the benefit of further experience with the score, Barbirolli has refined his approach. This same passage is still exciting but it’s more satisfactorily paced and everything sounds much more under control. The sequence of big chords is still too fast, though, and does not carry sufficient rhetorical weight. Returning to the 1959 performance, the slow nostalgic episode that follows (from about 15:20 – 17:17) is done with typical Barbirolli warmth and feeling and, indeed, he brings off the rest of the movement very successfully.

The second movement is paced really well. At the start there’s warm phrasing from the strings and very authentic use of portamento. I enjoyed this movement very much. In 1965 the opening is slower and, to be honest, sounds a bit sluggish though matters improve fairly soon thereafter. Barbirolli and the Hallé make a good job of the third movement.

In both performances the tempo for ‘Urlicht’ is a bit too stately for my taste and the ensemble and intonation of the Hallé’s brass players are rather put under the microscope in the chorale that follows the soloist’s first phrase. The soloist is the Polish mezzo, Eugenia Zareska (1910-79) who was based in London from 1952 and appeared in several roles at Covent Garden. She has a very full, rich tone and she sings well. However, six years later in Berlin Barbirolli had the inestimable advantage of Janet Baker - was this her Berlin Philharmonic debut, I wonder? She offers more than Zareska in terms of both tonal refinement and imaginative expression. Incidentally, in this 1959 performance the soloist seems a bit quick off the mark, starting to sing before the final chord of the third movement has properly died away. It’s only a small detail and I rather suspect this may be due to a flaw in the tape rather than an impetuous entry: in Berlin the transition between the two movements is fully satisfactory.

Barbirolli and his Hallé forces make an excellent job of the finale. The recording is somewhat stretched by some of the loudest passages – the opening being one such case – but on the other hand the offstage effects are very well managed and the incandescent ending is sonically well conveyed. Throughout this long movement the Hallé are valiant and hugely committed though, understandably, there are a few indications of tiredness towards the end. Their colleagues in the Hallé Choir make a very good contribution indeed though the Choir of St Hedwig’s Cathedral, which sings in the 1965 performance, has a bit of an edge, I think. The second soloist is the English soprano Victoria Elliot (1923-1986), a lyric soprano who was a principal artist with Sadler’s Wells in the 1950s. She does very well and can stand comparison with Maria Stader (Berlin, 1965). In both performances Barbirolli has the measure of the movement. Even in 1959, in what must have been one of his first performances of the symphony, he conveys the drama of the finale marvellously, never letting the tension sag. I found this 1959 finale very convincing. The last three or four minutes must have been a particularly thrilling experience for the Free Trade Hall audience and something of that frisson comes over in the recording.

Comparing the two recordings I’d have to say that the 1965 performance is a better interpretation overall. In that Berlin performance Barbirolli had one of the world’s leading orchestras at his disposal and it shows in a greater level of detail, polish and sheer stamina. Having said that, though, the Hallé rose magnificently to the occasion in 1959 and played their hearts out for Barbirolli. It should be noted that when the respective performances were given the Berliner Philharmoniker, for all their reputation and accomplishment, were scarcely more versed in playing Mahler than their Manchester colleagues. The 1965 sound is somewhat better, though the 1959 sound isn’t at all bad. So, if you simply want to experience Barbirolli in this score then the Testament set is probably your best bet.

However, Barbirolli admirers will be strongly attracted by the extra item – there’s no ‘filler’ on the Testament set. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard Barbirolli conduct Stravinsky but Michael Kennedy tells us that he did conduct a few Stravinsky scores, including The Firebird – the suite, I presume – and Petrushka. He adds that the Stravinsky scores which Barbirolli took up he invariably did well. This performance of Symphony of Psalms was given at the 1957 Edinburgh Festival and though the venue isn’t stated I presume it was the Usher Hall. The poor Hallé Choir had what must have been a gruelling journey, travelling overnight from Manchester to Edinburgh by train, arriving in the Scottish capital at 5am on the morning of the concert. There on the platform, waiting to greet them was Barbirolli himself, a gesture that must have raised spirits.

In truth, the performance they gave later in the evening is a bit variable. The first movement goes well; there’s strong fervent singing and both the choir and the orchestra articulate the rhythms well. There’s some good work by the Hallé woodwind section in the opening pages of the second movement but once the choir enters the sound becomes somewhat congested. In part I think this is down to the recording but other factors are at work as well. I suspect the choir is rather too large and their singing is not incisive enough. As a result of all this the performance sounds muddy. The opening of the third movement is taken very broadly by Barbirolli – a little too reverently - and the tuning is not always impeccable. When Stravinsky picks up the pace (12:56-16:23) Barbirolli responds well and this section is very convincing. Thereafter, the slow tempo is resumed and I’m sorry to say that the Hallé Choir is not quite able to deliver what their conductor wanted – choral standards have risen immeasurably since 1957. The sustained notes aren’t sufficiently supported and pitching suffers as a consequence. I didn’t really enjoy the last few minutes though the commitment of the performance is readily apparent. Still, this is a valuable addition to the Barbirolli discography because to the best of my knowledge no other recording by him of the work exists.

Inevitably, the sound on both performances has some limitations but these are not serious and Paul Baily has done a pretty good job of re-mastering the recordings. Both recordings are of BBC live broadcasts and I presume they come from private off-air sources. Though it’s a small point I wish that the three movements of Symphony of Psalms had been separately tracked. The accompanying documentation is excellent, as is always the case with this label. I don’t know if either of these recordings has been released before but admirers of this great conductor will surely want to hear them.

John Quinn

Masterwork Index: Mahler symphony 2