Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)
Symphony No. 5, Op, 50 [33:57]
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 7 [84:19]
Hallé Orchestra and BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli
rec. live, 20 October 1960, Free Trade Hall, Manchester
BARBIROLLI SOCIETY SJB1084-5 [56:38 + 63:18]

I’m familiar with this performance of Mahler’s Seventh. It was issued a good few years ago by BBC Legends, coupled with a 1966 Hallé performance of Bruckner’s Ninth (review). I had forgotten, though it’s clearly stated in the BBC Legends notes, that the first half of the concert in which the Mahler was played consisted of the small matter of Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony. The result was a concert of monster dimensions with two extremely taxing works in the same programme, involving some two hours of playing time. Even more remarkably, in his notes for the BBC Legends issue Michael Kennedy says that the concert was given twice, on consecutive evenings, 19 and 20 October; what we have here, therefore, is the second performance.

In his review of the BBC Legends issue Tony Duggan mentions that Barbirolli remarked in an interview that he gave in 1970 that it was only by that time – in other words a decade after this Manchester performance – that he felt he’d really “got” the Seventh. He was due to conduct it and record it with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1971 but, alas, he died before that project could come to fruition.

This Manchester concert was arranged as part of the Mahler centenary celebrations and the BBC had the inspired idea of reinforcing the Hallé by involving also their own Northern Symphony Orchestra in order to assemble forces that were sufficient in size to do justice in particular to the demands of the Mahler score. (The two orchestras had collaborated in this way on a few previous occasions, Robert Matthew-Walker tells us in his notes.) What I don’t know is whether all the players took part in both works but at least a number of them must have done so and one can only imagine how tiring this concert must have been.

Barbirolli’s own sense of adventure in programming these two symphonies together can’t be overstated. The Seventh is commonly acknowledged, even today, to be Mahler’s most elusive symphonic score. In 1960 performances of it were considerably rarer that is the case today. Nielsen was similarly an unfamiliar quantity to British audiences in 1960. Nowadays, performances and recordings of his music are gratifyingly frequent but it’s salutary to be reminded by Robert Matthew-Walker that as recently as 1959 Barbirolli and the Hallé had become the first British orchestra and conductor to record a Nielsen symphony (the Fourth, Pye CCL30164). With equal enterprise they had already been the first British ensemble to record a Mahler symphony, setting down the First in 1957 (Pye CCL30117).

The performance of the Nielsen symphony, which opened the concert, has never been issued commercially before. I was keen to hear this as I found much to admire in Barbirolli’s commercial recording of the Fourth. Barbirolli makes a fine impression in the Fifth, too. There’s plenty of tension in the opening minutes of the first movement. When the Adagio section arrives (10:00) Barbirolli is suitably expansive, as you’d expect him to be. The long haul to the climax is majestic and determined. The side-drummer makes a tremendous contribution and from 15:28 he or she really goes for it, possibly even eclipsing Alfred Dukes on the Jascha Horenstein/Unicorn-Kanchana recording (UKCD2023), letting loose a veritable frenzy of riffs and rim shots; it’s terrific. The triumph of Nielsen’s noble melody is glorious (15:58) and in the closing pages the principal clarinet is very poetic.

There’s plenty of vigour and drive at the start of the second movement and I admired Barbirolli’s rendition of this movement. Unfortunately, the sound calls for some tolerance. There’s a tendency for the brass to blare – a combination, I think, of the recording and over-enthusiastic playing – and the percussion is over-prominent. The upper registers of the woodwind and string sections can also seem shrill. All this had been in evidence in the first movement but not distractingly so; it’s much more of an issue in this movement, as is the fact that the loud tuttis sound very muddy. It’s a pity because the sonic issues detract somewhat from a dedicated performance. Overall, Barbirolli has the measure of this symphony and it’s to be regretted that his studio recording of the Fourth was never followed up with one of the Fifth but, then, in those days it would be a courageous decision for a British company to issue a Nielsen recording.

I bought the BBC Legends release of the Mahler Seventh when it came out in 2000 and I liked it then but I must admit it’s been quite a while since I played the recording. Quite frankly, I had forgotten how good it is. Admittedly the performance has its rough edges but perhaps we notice those now because the Seventh is so much better known and because we’re used to hearing sleek, virtuoso performances from the orchestras of today. Back in 1960 it would have been a very different story. I assumed that few, if any of the players would have ever played the symphony before but this assumption may be incorrect. Rob Barnett has drawn my attention to the BBC Genome listing of a BBC broadcast on 12 January 1948 in which members of the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra augmented the BBC Northern Orchestra, as it then was - it became the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra in January 1967 - for a performance of the Seventh conducted by Karl Rankl. So it may be that for his 1960 performance Barbirolli had at least some players who had a degree of familiarity with the score. In this connection, it’s salutary to remember that when Barbirolli went to Berlin in 1964 to perform the Ninth with the Berliner Philharmoniker and make his celebrated recording (review) even that great orchestra had no Mahler tradition of which to speak and he more or less taught them the score from scratch. In a similar way he must have schooled this combined Mancunian orchestra in the Seventh and goodness knows how many hours of rehearsal went into the preparation of this performance.

Once the first movement gets into its stride the performance is strong and purposeful. There are several expansive episodes in this movement and Barbirolli takes these broadly, relishing Mahler’s expressive music to the full. Some may judge him too protracted at times but I find the sheer eloquence of the music-making wins me over. It seems to me that for all his indulgence in slow tempi at times Barbirolli has a sure grip on the movement’s structure – as, indeed, is the case with the whole symphony. I find his performance convincing and it’s capped by an imposing final climax. I’m glad to say there is no repetition of the muddy sound that compromised the big tuttis in the second movement of the Nielsen.

The core tempo for the first Nachtmusik is quite deliberate but I think it works. Mahler’s nocturnal march is very atmospherically done though I have to say that the cowbell contributions are a bit unsubtle. There’s a genuine Mahlerian feel to the performance, not least through the tangy woodwind contributions. The strange, disjointed music of the Scherzo is well done. Mahler marked this movement Schattenhaft (‘like a shadow’) and Barbirolli makes that instruction come to life. This characterful performance may not be without the odd slip but in terms of Mahlerian ambience you realise how well Barbirolli has trained his troops. The spirit of this movement comes across excellently with accents acutely observed.

The second Nachtmusik is meat and drink to Barbirolli. He adopts quite a steady pace but what catches the ear is the sheer generosity of the string phrasing; this is amoroso indeed. The playing is warmly romantic, the strings in particular delivering the goods for their conductor. You are left in no doubt that JB cares about the music. The finale is quite steadily paced at the start but this doesn’t prevent the conveying of jubilation. As the lengthy rondo unfolded there were a few times when I thought JB was a touch too deliberate but mostly I believe he’s convincing. The playing is a bit brash in loud passages; that may be due to the recording or to exuberance – or a mix of both. There are signs of tiredness, unsurprisingly, but there’s no doubting the commitment of the players and one can forgive a certain lack of refinement and precision. Barbirolli brings the symphony to a huge, optimistic conclusion and the performance gets a storm of richly-deserved applause.

This Mahler Seventh – and indeed the Nielsen Fifth, too – is a great achievement by Barbirolli. This exemplifies his zeal for Mahler and for making music with ambition in Manchester. It would be a notable Mahler document under most circumstances but when you factor in the pioneering aspect then his achievement – and the achievement of his players - is all the greater. This is a performance that merits the attention of all Mahler enthusiasts and of all Barbirolli admirers. This is not sleek, virtuoso Mahler; it’s Mahler from the heart.

I made some spot comparisons with the BBC Legends transfer of the Mahler. Both transfers of this nearly 56 year-old recording are very good but I fancy this new re-mastering by Paul Baily for the Barbirolli Society has the edge. The new transfer has a bit more presence and details such as the timpani at the start of the finale register better. There’s a good essay by Robert Matthew-Walker which puts the performances nicely into an historical context.

John Quinn

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