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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934) Sea Pictures [21:33] Ernest John MOERAN (1894-1950)
Serenade [17:35] Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934) A Song of Summer [10:57] Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) Fantasia
on a theme by Thomas Tallis [16:55]
Constance Shacklock (contralto)
Hallé Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli
rec. live 21 October 1958, Royal Albert Hall, London (Elgar); 16 July
1952, Cheltenham Town Hall (Moeran); 26 May 1945, Royal Albert Hall,
London (Delius); 5 June 1963, Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway. ADD. Mono BARBIROLLI SOCIETY SJB1094 [67:24]
This release from the Barbirolli Society, containing previously unpublished live recordings, is of great interest for a number of reasons. Like the Delius and Vaughan Williams works, JB made a commercial recording – and a celebrated one at that – of Sea Pictures. That, of course was with a mezzo-soprano, Dame Janet Baker. Here his soloist is a contralto, Constance Shacklock. To the best of my knowledge there isn’t another recording of this work by her, though another live collaboration between her and Barbirolli, in The Dream of Gerontius, is on disc (review). The other significant interest lies in the presence on the programme of Moeran’s Serenade. Not only is this work new to the Barbirolli discography, I believe, but it’s remarkable for another reason. The work was originally cast in eight movements but when it was published Moeran withdrew two of the movements, ‘Intermezzo’ and ‘Forlane’. In this performance Barbirolli restored the ‘Intermezzo’, which is placed second.
The performance of Sea Pictures was given just short of a year after the aforementioned Gerontius. Constance Shacklock (1913-1999) was a genuine contralto; I liked her contribution to Gerontius and she’s just as admirable here. Her voice is large and generous and the recorded balance has her well to the fore. The recording of the orchestra is a bit compromised – the sound of the timpani is very dull, for instance – but there’s decent audibility of the orchestral accompaniment and certainly one can hear that Barbirolli is accompanying his soloist very well indeed. There’s a fair bit of background noise but one is mainly aware of this when Miss Shacklock is not singing. She gives a memorable performance. I admired her fine, seamless line in ‘In Haven’ and in the following song, ‘Sabbath Morning at Sea’, she is truly majestic at the words “These shall assist me to look higher”. Though she’s a contralto she is not discomfited either here or elsewhere in the cycle by the topmost notes. Though she has a big vocal presence Constance Shacklock proves that she can lighten her voice for the more delicate music of ‘Where Corals Lie’. The accompaniment to this song is felicitously delivered. The other notable feature of this song is Shacklock’s clarity of diction but, in truth, her words are very clear in all the songs. The last song, ‘The Swimmer’ is launched impetuously by Barbirolli., paving the way for an impassioned performance from Miss Shacklock. I’m not aware that there’s another recording of her in this work and so the disc would be of great interest for this one performance alone because it’s a very fine one despite the dated sound. Surprisingly, there’s no applause at the end although the BBC announcer steps in quickly, simply to announce the name of the soloist.
As I mentioned earlier, Barbirolli’s performance of the Moeran Serenade is notable because he restores one of the two movements excised by the composer between the first performance of the work in 1948 and its publication. As Robert Matthew-Walker says in his notes, it’s not entirely clear why Moeran withdrew the two movements. Nor is it clear why Barbirolli opted to include one of the two discards in this 1952 performance: I wonder what performance materials he used. Although this isn’t mentioned in the notes, the full eight-movement version of the Serenade was restored when a new edition of the work was produced in 1996; that’s been recorded at least once, by the Ulster orchestra and JoAnn Falletta (review).
Barbirolli’s account of the opening ‘Prologue’ is strong and forthright. The discarded ‘Intermezzo’ proves to be an affectionate and rather affecting little piece; hearing Barbirolli’s way with it you wonder why Moeran cast it aside. The fourth movement, ‘Minuet’ is a charming little piece and it’s elegantly done by Barbirolli. ‘Rigadoon’, which follows, is perky, with an exciting end. Overall, the present performance of the Serenade is a good one and full of spirit. The sound is not bad at all considering its age.
I wish the same could be said for the recording of Delius’s A Song of Summer. This is a piece of which Barbirolli was clearly fond – Robert Matthew-Walker tells us he performed it 71 times – and the present performance is a passionate affair. However, the sound calls for considerable tolerance at times. In quiet passages one is conscious of a good deal of surface noise while the loud passages usually distort.
The Delius was frequently played by JB but the Vaughan Williams Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis was even more a staple of his repertoire. In his book, Barbirolli. A Chronicle of a Career (review), Raymond Holden lists no fewer than 119 performances of the work and in addition Barbirolli made what is arguably the finest commercial recording of the piece (review). That famous recording with the Allegri Quartet and the Sinfonia of London was made in May 1962. Just over a year later Barbirolli played the piece with the Hallé during a concert in Bergen, Norway. (Other pieces from the same concert are on another Barbirolli Society set (SJB 1090-91) which I shall be reviewing shortly.) This is the most recent performance on this CD and, unsurprisingly, it’s preserved in the best sound. I’m glad of that because it’s a wonderful performance. Working under studio conditions – and probably with a smaller group of strings – Barbirolli got an even more polished performance from the Sinfonia of London but on the other hand this Bergen performance is more ardent and spontaneous. And the Hallé really play their hearts out for him and also display no little refinement. The three different strong choirs are nicely differentiated and the solo quartet plays with distinction. This is a most expressive performance and I’m jolly glad it’s now available on CD. This is the one piece which is followed by applause.
This is a most rewarding compilation of British music. All the performances are worth hearing with the accounts of the ‘Tallis’ Fantasia and of Sea Pictures being particularly memorable and valuable. Ian Jones has done a fine job transferring the recordings – I doubt anyone could have done any better with the Delius recording.