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Barbirolli - A Chronicle of a Career
by Raymond Holden
85 pages plus CD-ROM
ISBN: 978-0-9556710-3-6
Published 2016

The Australian conductor, writer and broadcaster, Raymond Holden is currently The Sir John Barbirolli Reader in Music at the Royal Academy of Music in London. It’s fitting, therefore, that he should have produced this account of the career of the great conductor.

It’s important to be clear what this book is not. It does not purport to be a study of the life of Barbirolli. That function has already been splendidly fulfilled by the late Michael Kennedy’s detailed biography. Here, in Part I of his book, Raymond Holden provides a biographical overview which, including two pages of footnotes, covers just 46 pages. That’s fine: he provides the outline of his subject’s life and times in a succinct and highly readable form. The meat of his study is contained in six further sections which, in the edition I’ve been sent for review, are contained on a CD-Rom in the form of PDF files. I should mention that it is also available as a limited edition hardback book (640 pages) containing the complete text and photographs.

Part II contains a detailed schedule of all Barbirolli’s performances, beginning on 18 April 1911 at De Keyser’s Royal Hotel, London. On that occasion Samuel Kutcher (violin), Richard Ball-Johnson (piano) and John Barbirolli (cello) played the first movement of Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio in D minor. The list comes to an end, 497 pages later, on 25 July 1970 with a concert in St. Nicholas Chapel, Kings Lynn at which the Hallé played Ravel’s Ma mère l’oye suite, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet and Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. Fittingly, JB’s very last programme began with another Mendelssohn piece, the ‘Hebrides’ Overture. Goodness knows how many concerts are listed in between but Holden’s meticulously compiled schedule takes in engagements with the British National Opera Company – the casts a veritable Who’s Who of great British singers - the John Barbirolli Chamber Orchestra, The Scottish National Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra, The Hallé, The Houston Symphony and, in later years, prestigious guest conducting appearances with the likes of the Berlin Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony, the Czech Philharmonic, the New Philharmonia Orchestra and many other leading ensembles.

Just leafing through the list of engagements one is struck by many things, including the depth and breadth of Barbirolli’s repertoire. But above all it’s the sheer industry of the man that is so remarkable. Night after night, it seems, we find him in his early days as a conductor leading operatic performances in towns and cities all over the UK with the BNOC. Later, it was the same story with the Hallé: a punishing schedule of concerts not just in regular Hallé venues such as Manchester’s Free Trade Hall and the St George’s Hall in Bradford but also in halls in a great number of other towns. Thus did Barbirolli and his players bring symphonic music to a wide public in post-war Britain.

Part III is, inevitably, shorter as it lists the programmes that Barbirolli had planned to give – and scheduled recordings – up to July 1971 had death not intervened. In August 1970, for example, he was booked to take the New Philharmonia on tour to Lebanon (two concerts) and then on to Japan for four concerts in Osaka as part of Expo’ 70 followed by two concerts in Tokyo. From those Japanese programmes one or two items caught my eye. Not only did he plan to play Rawsthorne’s Street Corner Overture and Alexander Goehr’s Symphony in One Movement; he also scheduled in both cities performances of Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem. It will be recalled that Britten’s piece had been commissioned and then rejected by the pre-war Japanese authorities; it should also be remembered that it was Barbirolli who first conducted the score, during his time in New York. Among other dates in his diary were concerts with the Chicago Symphony in October 1970 and a run of performances of Verdi’s Otello at the Royal Opera House in May 1971.

Part IV lists the towns, cities and venues in which Barbirolli appeared during his career – it’s a long list. Pride of place, of course, goes to Manchester including an astonishing 619 appearances in the Free Trade Hall – I counted another 394 appearances at other venues in the city. He also chalked up 443 dates in Carnegie Hall, New York. Sheffield, another regular Hallé haunt, saw him 317 times. There are countless other places where he conducted just once or twice.

Part V is a list of the orchestras, opera companies and chamber groups with whom JB made music during his six decades as a professional musician. Part VI lists soloists and other collaborators. Since the list runs to 7 pages, each of three columns, there must be getting on for 900 musicians listed. Finally, Part VII comprises a list, thirty pages long, of Barbirolli’s repertoire during the course of his career and detailing the number of performances given of each work. It’s a list that runs from Joseph Achron’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1 to Zeuner’s Symphony No. 4.

Compiling all this information about Barbirolli’s career must have been a Herculean task. Furthermore, as the author explains in his preface, the research has been far from straightforward. Among the obstacles in his way was the lack of any institutional archives for operatic companies operating in Britain before World War II. The archives of both the Scottish National and Hallé orchestras are paper-based and much of the archive of the Houston Symphony, where JB served as Music Director from 1961 to 1967, was lost in a flood. Raymond Holden has persevered through these and other difficulties and has produced a chronicle that is a mine of information about the career of one of Britain’s greatest and best-loved conductors.

The book contains 39 excellent photographs of the conductor at various stages in his career. There’s also an affectionate forward by Dame Gwyneth Jones who sang Verdi with Barbirolli on a number of occasions.

This is an indispensable resource for admirers of Sir John Barbirolli and one which, by detailing his countless appearances and huge repertoire, shows just what incalculable service he gave to music during his distinguished career.

John Quinn



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