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Sir John Barbirolli - 70th Birthday Concert
Announcement [1:38]
National Anthem [1:01]
Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Introduction and Allegro, Op 47 [14:33]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Symphony No. 6 in E minor [31:39]
Announcement and Presentation [3:25]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op 92 [37:46]
Sir John – closing speech [1:05]
Tributes to Sir John Barbirolli [19:10]
David Gerber interviews Sir John Barbirolli [17:29]
Hallé Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli
rec. live 18 December 1969, Free Trade Hall, Manchester (concert) ADD. Mono
BARBIROLLI SOCIETY SJB1098-99 [48:57 + 79:01]

Sir John Barbirolli died fifty years ago, on 29 July 1970. To mark the occasion, the Barbirolli Society has issued a clutch of recordings, of which this two-CD set is one. It preserves in its entirety the concert which the Hallé gave to mark his 70th birthday – his actual birthday fell on 2 December. The concert was broadcast by the BBC and it’s their recording that has been licensed.

The programme was chosen by Sir John. Tellingly, no soloist appeared. Undoubtedly, Barbirolli could have had his pick of leading singers and instrumental soloists, many of whom would have been queueing up to join the party, but he preferred that the focus should be on his partnership with his beloved orchestra; this concert came in his 27th season as their chief conductor and not long before he had accepted the title Conductor Laureate for Life.

The first half contained music by two English composers with whom Sir John was especially identified. In his valuable notes, Robert Matthew-Walker reminds us that Barbirolli made no less than six commercial recordings of Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro. For many people his 1962 EMI recording with the Sinfonia of London remains unsurpassed; I include myself in that number. Here, Barbirolli leads a big-hearted, striking performance. The playing is not entirely flawless but the orchestra’s commitment isn’t in doubt from first note to last. Barbirolli really had the measure of this masterpiece and his reading combines warmth and spirit.

Barbirolli became a noted champion on the music of Vaughan Williams and also a close friend of the composer. They met when Barbirolli performed the Sixth in Oxford and VW attended the rehearsal. In the broadcast interview which is included on disc 2, Barbirolli relates that on that occasion the composer remarked to him that he (VW) had got the metronome marking wrong in the Scherzo and Barbirolli was the first conductor who had chosen what VW felt was the correct speed. Barbirolli never made a commercial recording of the Sixth though there is another live performance preserved on CD; I’ll come to that in a moment.

The present performance is an exciting and dramatic one, though I don’t feel that the recorded sound flatters the Hallé. After a powerful opening, Barbirolli’s reading of the first movement is taut and urgent. At the end of the movement the theme which has cropped up in all sorts of guises, achieves its final flowering as a glorious lyrical melody (6;18) and here it blooms marvellously. In the second movement I very much admired the focus that Barbirolli brings through his conducting. There’s great tension throughout and when the movement reaches its climax, he presses forward towards it in an exciting and wholly convincing way, whereas in his other live performance on disc – at a concert given only a few months later – he held the tempo steady, sacrificing a degree of urgency thereby. The demonic scherzo comes off very well indeed; the Hallé really give the music their all and the brazen nature of the music is readily apparent. The mysterious, hushed finale is a real test of control on the part of both conductor and orchestra. Barbirolli adopts quite a swift pace and, in fact, takes just 7:56 to play the music whereas his other recording is a much more measured affair and lasts for 9:55.

For those who don’t know it, the other recording to which I’ve been referring, comes from a concert that JB gave on 10 April 1970 with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Munich’s Herkulessaal. This recording, coupled with the Brahms Second Symphony, was issued as long ago as 1992 on the Orfeo label and it’s still listed on Amazon so I presume it’s generally available (Orfeo C 265 921 B). Choosing between that performance and the Barbirolli Society reading is a case of swings and roundabouts. The BRSO’s playing surpasses that of the Hallé and the Orfeo recorded sound is much better – and it’s in stereo. An A/B comparison of the two revealed a slight pitch discrepancy between the recordings, which may be do with the respective source materials. Although the two performances took place within four months of each other it’s fascinating to note some significant interpretative differences. Overall, Barbirolli was more measured in his approach in Munich; that performance plays for 35:33 whereas the Manchester timing includes some 30 seconds of applause, so the music itself lasts for about 31 minutes. The main difference comes in the last movement which, as I’ve already noted, lasts for some two minutes longer in Munich; I prefer that performance. On the other hand, I have a very strong preference for the Manchester reading of the Scherzo. Although the Munich performance plays for just 43 seconds longer, the music feels significantly slower in that account; the treatment is too steady, almost ponderous, whereas in Manchester I think Barbirolli got it just right. Overall, I prefer the greater tension and urgency in the Manchester reading but admirers of the conductor will ideally want both versions in their collection.

The second half of the concert is prefaced by a short speech by Sir Geoffrey Howarth, Chairman of the Hallé Concerts Society, who made a presentation to Sir John. The conductor’s response is gracious but brief – amusingly, he pleads the need to respect the BBC’s scheduling. The formalities over, Barbirolli proceeds to direct a super performance of Beethoven’s Seventh. This is another work he never took into the recording studio. The BBC Legends label issued a performance of the work, coupled with Mozart’s ‘Haffner’ symphony and Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll. I’ve never heard that disc but the Beethoven performance on it would have to be pretty special to surpass this 1969 account.

For one thing, though the Hallé had played well for their chief in the first half of the concert it seems to me that they stepped up a gear for the Beethoven. Furthermore, Barbirolli doesn’t put a foot wrong throughout. He judges the Poco sostenuto introduction expertly – the reading holds out great promise of something excellent to come. Then the vivace itself bounds along, the rhythms very well-articulated. There’s no exposition repeat but the performance never lets go of the listener’s attention. The Hallé horn section has a field day. In the wrong hands, the Allegretto can seem dull; not here. Barbirolli paces the music ideally; he shapes the music very naturally and with complete understanding. The light-footed account of the Scherzo is full of brio and Barbirolli brings an engaging lift to the Trio. The finale isn’t rushed off its feet for surface excitement but there is no want of energy in the music-making. I felt swept along by this invigorating performance and so, too, did the audience who accorded conductor and orchestra a huge ovation at the end.

Though Barbirolli was known to have health problems I doubt anyone present that night at the Free Trade Hall would have guessed that he had just over six months to live. There’s no sense of failing powers in these performances; ‘Glorious John’ was on top form for his Manchester audience that night. But by the end of June 1970 he was dead after two concerts with the Hallé at the Kings Lynn Festival. The first of those concerts included a magnificent account of the Elgar First Symphony, which has been preserved on disc (review). The second, which so far as I’m aware, was not recorded, concluded with the Beethoven Seventh. It’s poignant to be reminded by Robert Matthew-Walker that this symphony was the last music that Sir John Barbirolli conducted in public. Fortunately, we now have this splendid performance from a few months before to remind us of his excellence in the work.

The remainder of the second disc is given over to two BBC features. Though it’s not stated specifically, I infer that both were pre-recorded for transmission linked to the live broadcast of the concert. David Gerber hosts both features. One is a series of tributes to Sir John by a variety of people who knew him well. These include his friend and biographer, Michael Kennedy, who recalls the excitement of Barbirolli’s early days with the Hallé when, with the Free Trade Hall unusable thanks to bomb damage, concerts were given in a variety of venues in and around Manchester, including the Belle Vue circus arena. There are also contributions from Martin Milner, leader of the Hallé from 1958 to 1987; from Michael Davis, deputy leader at the time of the 70th birthday concert and who went on to lead both the LSO and the BBC Symphony; Jacqueline du Pré, who talks all-too briefly about working with Barbirolli on the Elgar Cello Concerto; and Daniel Barenboim. The second feature is an interview with Barbirolli himself, recorded during a rehearsal break a few days before the birthday celebration. In the interview he discusses the choice of programme and also reminisces about aspects of his career.

The recorded sound is not perfect – it is, after all, fifty years old – but it’s perfectly satisfactory and Ian Jones has made a good job of the remastering. Those collectors who have an aversion to applause should be warned that there’s quite a bit of audience appreciation on these discs – including nearly three minutes of ovation after the Beethoven. However, given the occasion that’s preserved here I think it would have been churlish to cut off the applause which shows how much the Mancunian audience loved ‘Glorious John’. Robert Matthew-Walker’s notes are excellent, putting the concert into context in a very welcome way.

This pair of CDs convey a real sense of occasion and they form a fine tribute to a much-loved conductor.

John Quinn

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