Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)
Overture: Oberon [8:57]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68 [44:47]
Hallé Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli
rec. live, 25 May 1958, Smetana Hall, Prague

1958 marked the centenary of the Hallé Orchestra and in celebration the orchestra and Sir John Barbirolli embarked on a European tour. Their itinerary took them to Belgium, West Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Austria in the space of some three weeks. Robert Matthew-Walker’s note accompanying this CD is ideal; recognising that most purchasers will know the music already, he concentrates instead on telling us about the tour. The story makes for fascinating reading, not least in terms of reminding us how much easier international travel has become since 1958. We may have to cope with concerns about security but at least we aren’t obliged these days to undertake most of such a journey, unless by choice, on coaches: and in those days coach travel was far less quick and comfortable than is now the case, as Mr Matthew-Walker makes clear.

The Czech leg of the tour took the musicians to Prague where they gave two concerts as part of the Prague Spring Festival. This, I’m pretty sure, was the first appearance by either the orchestra or its conductor in the Czech capital. Playing to his and the orchestra’s strengths, Barbirolli programmed Bruckner’s Fourth, Berlioz and – a typical gesture – the ‘Enigma’ Variations in the first concert. The following night, in another echt-Barbirolli programme, the Prague audience was treated to the Vaughan Williams Eighth Symphony, then very new, and the other pieces on this disc. This second concert was broadcast by Czech Radio and, miraculously, the tapes have survived. Was the first concert also broadcast, I wonder? These performances are now published for the first time.

It has to be said that, for all the skill of Paul Baily, who has re-mastered the recordings, the sound isn’t ideal. The sound is rather wiry and bass-light and it’s constricted, especially in loud passages. Nonetheless, we can get a pretty good idea of the performances and they’re well worth hearing. In the Weber overture there’s plenty of vigour in the allegro passages and also some admirable poetic features, such as an excellent clarinet solo in the lyrical episode midway through. It’s a fine, dashing reading.

We’re told in the notes that there are only two other known recordings by Barbirolli of the Brahms First Symphony. These, I presume, are the live 1954 Hallé reading and JB’s studio recording with the Vienna Philharmonic, made in the 1960s as part of his complete cycle with that orchestra. Like Jonathan Woolf (review) I have a strong preference for the 1954 account over the Vienna Phil traversal. In fact that VPO cycle as a whole disappointed me when I acquired it; the performances were too autumnal for their own good.

This 1958 Prague performance is presented in inferior sound as compared to Guild’s re-mastering of the 1954 performance. However, it’s still well worth hearing. After an expansive introduction to the first movement the main allegro may not be the fleetest one has heard but it has strength and purpose and that is surely the key thing. Barbirolli shapes the music with great understanding and leads a thrusting account of the movement. With the Hallé on its collective mettle one can overlook both the sonic limitations and the fact that the exposition repeat is not taken. The second movement is affectionate and warmly phrased while there are good solos to admire from the leader and the principal oboe and horn. The third movement is light and mobile.

The big introduction to the finale is measured, tense and dramatic though the recording itself is under some pressure hereabouts. The big horn tune and the pages that follow unfold spaciously. The allegro itself is just right though I don’t care for the way that Barbirolli brings back the big string melody (8:49) at a very broad tempo: it takes some time for the music to build up a head of steam again. Unsurprisingly, the chorale near the end is taken very grandly – more broadly than I like – and that’s a pity when the pages immediately before and after the statement of the chorale display such bracing energy. However, those are small points and overall it’s an exciting and successful traversal of the finale. Barbirolli and his players were rewarded with warm applause.

Though the limitation of the sound can’t be overlooked entirely they should not deter admirers of ‘Glorious John’ from acquiring and enjoying this disc.

John Quinn

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