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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 8 in C minor (ed. Haas) [84:22]
Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)
In a Summer Garden [14:13]
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony No. 5 in E flat major, Op 82 [32:25]
Hallé Orchestra, BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli
rec. live 17 January 1963, Free Trade Hall, Manchester (Bruckner); 5 June 1963, Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway. ADD Mono
BARBIROLLI SOCIETY SJB1090-91 [60:02 + 71:05]

Sir John Barbirolli died fifty years ago - on 29 July 1970, to be precise – so this is an opportune time to consider this set of live performances issued by the Barbirolli Society. It was something of a jolt to remind myself that it was as long ago as October 1969 that I last saw ‘Glorious John’ conduct, when he brought the Hallé to the St George’s Hall, Bradford in a typical Barbirolli programme: a Rossini overture, La Mer and the Elgar First Symphony.

It was not unusual for Manchester’s two professional symphony orchestras to collaborate on special occasions. For example, in October 1960 the Hallé Orchestra and the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra (now the BBC Philharmonic) gave an astounding programme which combined Mahler’s Seventh Symphony with an amuse-bouche in the form of Nielsen’s Fifth. What’s more, they gave the same programme on two consecutive evenings! The second of those evenings was broadcast and has been preserved on an earlier Barbirolli Society release (review). Just over two years later, Barbirolli brought the two orchestras together again to essay Bruckner’s Eighth. Incidentally, I think the Barbirolli Society has made a slight slip in giving the date of this performances as 17 July 1963. I was curious to see what, if anything, was also played on this particular programme and so I searched in the comprehensive schedule of the conductor’s performances listed in Raymond Holden’s Barbirolli. A Chronicle of a Career (review). It turns out that JB was conducting in Venice on 17 July. The Bruckner concerts took place on 16 and 17 January, 1963 and the second of these was broadcast: the other work on the bill was Hindemith’s Symphony in E flat, for which George Hurst took the baton.

I’m not sure exactly when in his career Barbirolli first conducted the Brucker Eighth but, as it happens, it was the main work in what turned out to be his last London concert, in May 1970. That performance was issued on CD by BBC Legends and was very warmly received by Tony Duggan (review). If you have that performance in your collection, you’ll find that this Manchester performance presents rather a different view of the symphony. There’s something of a giveaway in the respective timings. Barbirolli traversed the work in just 73:45 in 1970 compared with 84:22 in 1963. The following table gives an indication of how each movement unfolds in the respective performances

Movement 1963 1970
I 15:55 14:54
II 14:55 13:27
III 29:09 23:35
IV 24:23 22:07

The symphony’s first movement begins slowly but even though his basic speed is broad, Barbirolli sustains tension well. He also brings out the drama in the music – and it’s a frequent feature of the performance that one can hear foot-stamping by JB at dramatic moments. The climaxes are powerfully projected, especially the last one in the movement, though I did wonder if that particular climax was not just a bit too rhetorically protracted. My attention was held throughout the movement. In 1970 Barbirolli took the Scherzo very swiftly. It’s exciting but a bit breathless for my taste. I much prefer the steadier pace that was adopted in 1963. That said, I find the 1963 traversal of the Trio is rather on the slow side; the 1970 version is better. If only I could have the 1963 Scherzo and 1970 Trio combined, because in those cases I think Barbirolli’s pacing allowed hm to convey accurately the essential spirit of the respective sections of the movement.

As you’ll have gathered from the table above, it’s in the Adagio that the two performances diverge most spectacularly: a difference of some 5 ˝ minutes is quite something. Bruckner’s German instruction is Feierlich langsam, doch nicht schleppend. I think that Barbirolli (1963) complies with all those injunctions, though some may feel that his compliance with doch nicht schleppend (but not sluggishly) is a moot point. I think he gets away with it – though on another day I might feel differently. The reason why he gets away – or succeeds - with his daringly slow tempo, I believe, is because his vision of the music is so sincere and intense. His ability to sustain the line is also a factor – not for nothing was he a cellist. It’s a dedicated performance during which he gets a fine response from the expanded orchestra. The climaxes have a majestic inevitability and the last one (at 22:30) is especially powerful. The long coda (from 24:42, as againt 19:55 in the 1970 performance) is taken very broadly and is most expressive; it must have taxed the breath control of the horn and Wagner tuba section. This 1963 version is a special experience – it’s one for high days and holidays.

Parts of the finale, such as the very opening, were taken a bit more swiftly in the 1970 performance – to beneficial effect. The present performance is somewhat more deliberate but it’s a cogent, full-blooded reading. I admire the grandeur of Barbirolli’s conception. Occasionally, I think he misjudges - the start of the string fugue at 19:15 is rather too deliberate, for example. Overall, though, I was convinced. The long build-up to the end (from 21:44) is imposing and well controlled. By that stage, Barbirolli and his players have earned both the closing peroration and the ovation that follows (which is quickly faded out).

This is a notable performance of the Bruckner Eighth. The combined orchestra may not be flawless in their execution – it was a long and taxing evening – but they give of their very best and Barbirolli conducts with terrific commitment to the score. In 1970 he gave a tauter performance - beneficially so in some respects - but this earlier version is one which his admirers should certainly hear. And, as I hope I’ve indicated, if you already possess the 1970 performance, buying this version won’t by any means be an extravagant duplication. The 1970 performance is presented in sound that is more immediate – partly that may be to do with the Royal Festival Hall acoustic. I’m not sure what source Paul Baily has used for the 1963 performance. The sound is a bit muddy in the bass but still perfectly acceptable. There is a momentary drop-out in the signal at 5:59 in the finale and a smaller crackle a couple of minutes before that, but otherwise I noted no sonic imperfections. Given that the performance took place nearly 60 years ago, the sound is very good and any limitations will not spoil your enjoyment of the performance.

In June 1963 Barbirolli led the Hallé on an eight-concert tour of Scandinavia, visiting Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden. This saw them playing, inter alia, Sibelius in Helsinki and Nielsen in Copenhagen - their programmes, which entailed surprisingly little repetition of pieces, are detailed in Raymond Holden’s Chronicle. They commenced their tour with two concerts in Bergen, beginning on 5 June with a programme that included, besides the Sibelius and Delius works contained in this set, the Vaughan Williams ‘Tallis’ Fantasia and Debussy’s La Mer.

I enjoyed In a Summer Garden very much. A great deal has been made – rightly – of Beecham’s magic in the music of Delius but I think that Barbirolli was equally able to distil magic, albeit the spells he cast in Delius were somewhat different. Here, he delivers a performance that is full of understanding and atmosphere. In a lovely performance I relished especially the poetry that JB brings to the passage between 4:40 and 6:45. In those days, overseas tours by orchestras weren’t as frequent as they later became, so probably there was a particular incentive for touring musicians to show they were on their mettle. It certainly sounds as if the Hallé were determined to show the good folk of Bergen that a quality orchestra had come to town.

The programme that evening closed with the Sibelius Fifth; this was the only time the work was played on this tour. It received a splendid performance. Barbirolli is masterly in his shaping of the first movement. It seems to me that he understood completely all the tempo relationships and how to bring off the transitions in order to make the movement a seamless whole. That’s especially true of the part in the work where, in essence, what would normally be the Scherzo evolves from the music that has preceded it. The Presto conclusion to the movement blazes excitingly. The slow movement is expertly and patiently judged. Though there are passages of dynamism in the finale, it’s the spaciousness and majesty of the performance that stick most in the mind. Some may feel that Barbirolli is a bit too expansive at times but I loved what I heard and, to judge by what we hear of the ovation at the end, so did the audience.

The recordings have been well transferred by Paul Baily. Again, I don’t know what sources he had available to him but he’s made a very good job of the transfers. There’s a bit of quiet background noise throughout the Delius but it doesn’t impede the performance.

Fifty years after his death, it’s good to have this collection of performances which remind us of the magnetism of Sir John Barbirolli.

John Quinn

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