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Antonín DVOŘÁK
Symphony No. 8 in G major, Op 88 [38:58]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Don Juan, Op 29 [19:22]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
L’Oiseau de feu – Suite (1919) [21:35]
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op 43* [44:24]
Philharmonia Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli
rec. live 25 & *28 August 1963, Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires, Argentina. ADD Mono
BARBIROLLI SOCIETY SJB1092-93 [79:59 + 44:28]

In 1963 Sir John Barbirolli became an EMI recording artist once again and one result of this was that he began to work with the Philharmonia Orchestra, with whom he was to make a good number of recordings during the remaining seven years of his life. Michael Kennedy mentions in his biography of the conductor that their first public appearance together was a London performance of The Dream of Gerontius in March 1963. Some months later he led the orchestra on what Robert Matthew-Walker describes in the notes accompanying these CDs as a “relatively extensive” tour of South America. This set of discs includes music played at two of the concerts on that tour, both of which were broadcast.

It was only after completing my listening to these discs that I dug out Michael Kennedy’s authorised biography, Barbirolli. Conductor Laureate to see if there was any material in it about this tour. I came across this quotation from a letter that he wrote during the tour; coincidentally, the letter was written while he was in Buenos Aires. “The orchestra has played splendidly and is improving every day. They rehearse with great enthusiasm and goodwill but despite some very fine instrumentalists (some have just joined for the trip) it is not quite my Hallé.” Perhaps that’s not too surprising: the relationship between conductor and orchestra was still in its early days. Nonetheless, this set contains very good and highly enjoyable performances.

The two symphonies were core Barbirolli repertoire. In his book, Barbirolli. A Chronicle of a Career (review), Raymond Holden lists 97 performances of the Dvořák Eighth symphony during the course of JB’s career and an amazing 173 performances of the Sibelius Second. His complete identification with both scores is readily apparent here.

The Dvořák is so suited to Barbirolli’s style. He conducts it with warmth and affection and the performance also has ample vitality. I enjoyed it all, but the slow movement is especially well shaped and there’s lovely phrasing to admire in the Allegretto grazioso, especially in the Trio section. This symphony is life-enhancing from start to finish and even though the recording shows its age one can still relish Barbirolli’s mastery of it.

He’s equally impressive in the Sibelius. The first movement gets a strong and wholly convincing reading. The second movement has a glowing, legendary quality to it. In the passage beginning at 6:13 the solo trumpeter’s intonation is somewhat variable but I strongly suspect this is distortion from the radio broadcast rather than the fault of the player. Notwithstanding this and a few other sonic limitations, Barbirolli’s account of the movement is magnetic. His way with the Scherzo is really dynamic while the Trio is shaped expansively. The finale is a conspicuous success, culminating in a majestic final peroration. I’m unsurprised that the audience went wild because they’d just heard a full-blooded performance of the score that bespoke great experience of the score and empathy with the music.

I don’t believe I’ve previously heard recordings of Barbirolli in either of the other two works. Robert Matthew-Walker terms them “less-frequently-encountered scores in Barbirolli’s repertoire”. That’s probably true up to a point though, in fact, Raymond Holden has traced 60 performances of Don Juan and 121 accounts of the Firebird suite. (Tellingly, though, Holden only lists a total of 35 performances of 8 other Stravinsky pieces during the whole of JB’s career.)

I found Barbirolli’s traversal of Don Juan pretty engaging. It may not have the degree of swagger that one has heard from some other conductors but the performance is well controlled and you probably won’t be surprised to learn that the love music is warmly done – the solo oboe is very good. A long silence is observed before JB and the Philharmonia depict the death of the Don. Infuriatingly, a couple of audience members can’t even wait for the last note to die away before shattering the atmosphere with raucous shouts of ‘Bravo’.

L’Oiseau de feu also goes well, though I’m disappointed that the work is presented here on a single track. The Introduction has plenty of mysterious atmosphere. King Kashchei’s dance is pretty fiery, though towards the end the recorded sound seems to recede quite a bit. The Berceuse is tenderly done. The Finale has one controversial point. Towards the end, when the theme is played in full orchestral chords, Barbirolli not only slows the pace significantly but also plays each chord almost staccato so that there’s a big gap between each one. I can’t recall hearing anyone else treat the music in this way and I must say I don’t like the effect one little bit.

I’m not sure of the exact sources with which transfer engineer Paul Baily has had to work. The sound isn’t ideal at times, usually during loud passages, but one can still get a very good impression of the performances and it’s well worth listening through the sound itself to appreciate the quality of the performances. There’s vociferous applause – soon faded – after each work, but apart from the incident at the end of Don Juan the audiences at these concerts were well-behaved and won’t distract you as you listen. Robert Matthew-Walker’s notes are interesting and informative. These previously unpublished recordings were well worth rescuing from the archives.

John Quinn

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