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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Tod und Verklärung, Op. 24 [23:15]
Dimitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47 [44:42]
Announcements [1:16 + 0:42 + 0:17]
rec. live 21 January 1963, Free Trade Hall, Manchester. ADD Mono
Hallé Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli

These performances were recorded together by the BBC under concert conditions, though I’m not sure if an audience was present. There’s quite a bit of coughing and clearing of throats between the third and fourth movements of the symphony but, on the other hand, neither performance is followed by applause and if an audience was present it’s a commendably silent one..

The performance of Tod und Verklärung hasn’t been published before. In his useful booklet essay Robert Matthew-Walker says that Barbirolli had conducted the piece before, but not for some years. The score proves to be fertile ground for this conductor. The opening few minutes are phrased very expressively, but not in such a way that momentum is sacrificed. From 4:45 the passionate, surging episode is very convincingly done and a little later a lovely flute solo leads the orchestra into the work’s gentler, reflective section (8:15). When the Transfiguration music is reached (17:34) Barbirolli doesn’t disappoint. Firstly, he prepares for that moment really well and then the Transfiguration itself is noble and spacious. This is a pretty fine performance of the work.

There is another Barbirolli recording of the Shostakovich symphony in the catalogue. It was issued by BBC Legends in 2006. I bought it then and liked it, and I was pleased to discover that my colleague Dominy Clements was also positive about it (review). However, that’s a different performance, set down on 22 February 1963 in a venue described as “BBC Studios, Manchester”. The performance issued on this present CD – a performance which, it seems, has been available before – is a different one. It’s of particular interest since it was the very first performance that Barbirolli gave of the work. Indeed, as Robert Matthew-Walker relates, it was his first performance of any Shostakovich symphony. In his note accompanying the BBC Legends issue, Lyndon Jenkins writes that, after taking up the work in the 1962/63 season, Barbirolli gave several performances of the Fifth, including one in the Royal Festival Hall. I wonder if the 21 January performance for the BBC was followed by performances in the Hallé’s Manchester subscription concert series. If so, then it’s quite possible that the work was also given in one or more of the orchestra’s regular haunts in Yorkshire - Bradford and Sheffield - before the 22 February recording. That latter performance is perhaps a bit more ‘run in’ than the one recorded in January, which might be the beneficial effect of other performances in between. I’m not quite sure why the BBC decided to make the recording in February as well as one in January but I’m glad we have the choice, as I’ll explain.

First, though, I should discuss the performance that’s contained on this new CD. I very much admire the patience with which Barbirolli unfolds the opening Moderato. Furthermore, the Hallé plays it very well. When the music speeds up (8:30) there’s much greater urgency in the performance, as there should be, and Barbirolli gets very intense playing from the orchestra. The subdued ending to the movement is well done and it was nice to hear some excellent solo violin solo work from the orchestra’s leader, Martin Milner (1928-2000). He led the Hallé with distinction from 1958 to 1987 and I well remember seeing and hearing him in action many times. He makes some pithy contributions to the second movement, too. That movement is well energised by Barbirolli.

For me, the highlight of the performance is the Largo. The patience and concentration that was in evidence in the slow episodes of the first movement is even more apparent here. The performance is both deeply felt and searching. The main climax (8:36 - 9:19) is very powerful and a number of foot stomps – presumably by the conductor, willing the orchestra on – can clearly be heard. The passage that follows this climax is played with particular intensity. In this movement it is the strings that carry the principal musical burden and the Hallé strings really dig deep. The playing isn’t entirely flawless but it’s very convincing. This is a memorable account of the movement. The finale is launched with abundant drive. The performance is exciting but I just wonder if things are a bit too hectic at times. The slower central section (3:27 – 6:40) is well done and I particularly admired the fine horn solo at the start of this episode. I was glad to find that Barbirolli doesn’t pull out the closing peroration (from 8:02) in an excessively rhetorical fashion; instead, he maintains momentum throughout.

There is some lack of polish in the playing, especially by comparison with today’s standards, but I don’t think that matters at all. This is a very fine performance of Shostakovich’s most popular symphony and any small orchestral frailties along the way can’t and don’t detract from us. I referred to this as the composer’s most popular symphony, and so it is – nowadays. However, in 1963 I don’t believe that the Fifth was quite as well-known in the West as is now the case. Barbirolli was enterprising in selecting it to add to his repertoire. In one of the appendices to his book, Barbirolli. A Chronicle of a Career (review), Raymond Holden lists no fewer than 22 performances of the Fifth, given between January 1963 and the conductor’s death in 1970. The only other symphony he played was the First, given seven performances, presumably all of them after 1963. In all honesty, I doubt many of the Soviet master’s symphonies would have been natural JB territory – it’s hard to imagine a Barbirolli-led ‘Leningrad’ for instance – though on the evidence of his way with the Fifth I’d have been interested to hear him in the Tenth.

I said earlier that I was glad that collectors have the choice between the two recordings of Barbirolli in the Shostakovich Fifth, even though these were made just weeks apart. If you already have the BBC Legends disc, the question is whether you should invest in this new release. My unequivocal advice is that you should, for two reasons. One is that this disc contains a notable performance of Tod und Verklärung, which is otherwise unavailable. As for the symphony, I think the February performance bespeaks slightly greater experience with the work. However, I did A/B comparisons and I’m convinced that the sound on this Barbirolli Society release is superior. The BBC Legends recording sounds a bit boxy and shrill; at times the sound is rather aggressive. By contrast, there’s much more space round the sound of the orchestra in the January performance. I don’t know the precise venue for the February performance but the Free Trade Hall yielded much more satisfactory results in January. I don’t know what source Ian Jones had for his transfer but his remastering job for the Barbirolli Society is very successful. These recordings are 56 years old now and I was much more conscious of the age factor when listening to the BBC Legends disc.

Admirers of Sir John Barbirolli should certainly seek out this release, especially for his probing account of the Shostakovich.

John Quinn

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