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Sir John Barbirolli (conductor)
The Complete RCA and Columbia Album Collection
Benny Goodman (clarinet), Robert Casadesus (piano), Nathan Milstein (violin)
New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra
SONY 19075988382 [6 CDs: 414 mins]

Though nothing is made of the fact in the booklet or box, it’s surely no coincidence that this retrospective set is released in the 50th anniversary year of Barbirolli’s death. It focuses on almost all – but not quite all – of Barbirolli’s recordings with his Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York, here updated to ‘New York Philharmonic’. The missing item is the Schumann Violin Concerto with Menuhin, the rights of which now lie with Warner, though this, like almost everything else here, has been reissued on other labels. I am still racking my brains, though, to see if the recording of Sheep May Safely Graze has been reissued; I don’t think it was on Dutton or the Barbirolli Society CDs reissues. If not it’s very welcome and as Leonard Slatkin showed in his Bach ‘Conductors’ Transcriptions’ album (Chandos CHSA5030) it’s a most effective and affecting piece of work.

The first of the six well-filled discs disinters Barbirolli’s arrangements of Purcell – a work he played at one of his first New York concerts - which must have taken the conductor back to one of his first recording sessions as a conductor when he’d recorded the hornpipe from The Married Beau with his Chamber Orchestra for HMV. A decade on the six-movement Suite proves memorably sonorous and full bloodied with highlights being Fairest Isle and When I am Laid in Earth. This is followed by a splendidly recorded and vividly played Iberia with the Victor engineers on top form, and Francesca da Rimini. His Philharmonia LP recording of this last is still much admired but the New York reading is no less impressive, albeit marred by a small cut. There is real ardour in the Andante section with more portamenti than Toscanini would ever have allowed but with ravishing cantabile phrasing. The good news is that that clipped flute note at the side join in this section of the work has been mitigated rather better than ever before – better than the Dutton transfer, certainly (it’s at 5:21, track 12). Respighi’s The Fountains of Rome and the Arie di corte from the Ancient Airs and Dances are similarly charged.

CD2 houses the first recording ever made of Schubert’s Fourth Symphony. There’s a tiny ‘clip’ at 0:52 into the first movement which indicates that this, and everything else, comes from commercial copies and not from the masters. This second disc is a game of two symphonic halves. The Schubert is tremendously impressive - powerful, lyrical, excellently controlled. Brahms’ Second Symphony however is exceptionally fast – not a criticism that could ever be levelled at the older JB – and if one thinks that Monteux in San Francisco in 1945 was fleetness itself that would be to reckon without Barbirolli. The Allegretto is uncomfortable to listen to and in fact the whole performance is unconvincing on a number of levels.

Sibelius comes to the rescue in disc three where there are memorable recordings of the First Symphony (1942) and the Second (1940). Sibelius was a known Barbirolli strength but his tempi in the 1950s with the Hallé are predictably more driven than those he took in the following decade. If sound quality is king then the Hallé recordings from the 60s are preferable but interpretively the 1957 First and the 1952 Second – along with the famous RPO Second – are indispensable, along with these two New York recordings.

The fourth CD is a bits-and-pieces affair. There’s lusty Smetana, a brightly recorded but idiomatically played Rimsky Capriccio espagnole in which one can hear the great concertmaster Mishel Piastro and cello principal Joseph Schuster, and La Valse which faced predictably strong competition on disc from Munch and Monteux. If the string tone in Le Carnaval romain is a touch acidic, the Academic Festival Overture is more rounded, and the performance a strong B plus. Benny Goodman joins for a timbrally distinctive Debussy First Rhapsody. There’s more Goodman in the penultimate disc where he plays Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. They’d given a pre-recording run through in concert but in fact it’s not especially distinguished; rather bloodless in fact, from the soloistic point. It wasn’t issued on 78 and Goodman was to re-record it in Boston with Munch, by which time he had taken lessons from Reginald Kell (you can find a slew of Goodman’s classical recordings on the Heritage label). By comparison Casadesus and Barbirolli make a fine team in Mozart’s Concerto No.27, a work Barbirolli had already recorded with Schnabel in London in 1934 for HMV. Casadesus was a familiar figure in New York and a live performance of the Concerto No.23, K488 is on APR and attests to the rapport between both musicians. Symphony No.25 completes this all-Mozart disc; athletic, youthful and vibrant.

Nathan Milstein’s excellent Bruch G minor heads the final disc and whilst the recording is not top-drawer, Milstein’s playing is. Tchaikovsky’s Tema con variazioni from the Orchestral Suite No.3 is slightly cut. Barbirolli and the New Yorkers got it onto two 78s whereas in Liverpool Malcolm Sargent was granted three discs. Finally, we end with Barbirolli’s An Elizabethan Suite, his arrangements of Byrd, Farnaby, and Bull, a synchronous way to end given that the first piece of the first disc was his Purcell arrangement.

It might be worth addressing some words on the hoary old question of Barbirolli’s ‘failure’ in New York but specifically in relation to his recordings. This ‘failure’, it strikes me - an issue which in recent years has been shown to be a gross exaggeration - was always more than a matter of certain local critics’ hostility toward a youngish newcomer who lacked Toscanini’s greatness and who had ‘let standards slip’. There were, it strikes me, parallel issues going on. If one reads the influential David Hall’s criticisms in The Record Book there are battles on multiple fronts when it comes to the discs. The first is an interpretative one in regard to Barbirolli; then there is a question of the technical standing of his orchestra; and finally, there is a battle between the relative quality of Victor and Columbia’s recordings, as the orchestra recorded for both in this period. More than once Hall, born in New Rochelle, New York and who was, it should be noted, a programme annotator for Toscanini’s NBC Symphony concerts, damns both orchestra and its several Columbia recordings under Barbirolli as ‘coarse’. Carnegie Hall was a problematic recording venue for any company, so other venues were soon used, but the Philharmonic-Symphony was still often written off in comparison with recordings from Philadelphia and Boston. In truth, no orchestra in the world could challenge the Philadelphia under Stokowski and Ormandy in terms of voluptuousness of recorded sound; interpretation is another matter. But one gets the feeling that New York critics felt increasingly threatened and frustrated by the East Coast rivals’ status on disc. And yet Barbirolli’s recordings in New York en bloc are - the Brahms aside – deeply impressive, if sonically quite different from the Phily and Koussevitzky’s Boston Symphony.

Each disc is housed in a retro78 album sleeve and the booklet is filled with 78 and subsequent LP sleeves – very colourful and tactile – as well as job and recording sheets from the sessions and black and white photographs of Barbirolli.

There are numerous New York Barbirolli discs to consider alongside this box. The Columbia Masters series transferred by Mike Dutton is on four discs on the SJB label and is augmented by two single discs on CDEA and replicates this Sony box. APR and Dutton have released some important material and there are numerous live recordings from the conductor’s tenure – some of the best things can be found on Guild – which will both reinforce and amplify Barbirolli’s commercial legacy for Victor and for Columbia.

This box’s 24bit/96kHz transfers are fine though not notably superior to the discs noted above. If you have them, hang on to them. This box, however, is a finely produced and concentrated focus on Barbirolli’s New York shellac years and comes with a fair-minded, level-headed booklet note from James H North.

Jonathan Woolf
Track listing
Johann Sebastian Bach
Cantata BWV208, 'Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd!': Sheep may safely graze (Schafe konnen sicher weiden) (orch. John Barbirolli)
John Barbirolli
An Elizabethan Suite
Hector Berlioz
Le Carnaval romain (Roman Carnival): overture, op.9 H95
Johannes Brahms
Academic Festival Overture, op.80
Symphony no.2 in D major, op.73
Max Bruch
Violin Concerto no.1 in G minor, op.26; Nathan Milstein (violin)
Claude Debussy
Images pour gemütlich » II Iberia
Petite Suite (orch. H Busser) IV Ballet
Rhapsody for clarinet and orchestra, L116 'Premiere Rapsodie'
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Clarinet Concerto in A major, K622
Piano Concerto no.27 in B flat major, K595
Symphony no.25 in G minor, K183
Henry Purcell
Suite for Strings, Woodwind and Horns (arr. Barbirolli)
Maurice Ravel
La Valse
Ottorino Respighi
Ancient Airs and Dances, Suite no.3, P172
Fontane di Roma (Fountains of Rome), P106
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
Capriccio espagnol, op.34
Franz Schubert
German Dances (5) and Trios (7) with Coda, D90
Symphony no.4 in C minor, D417 'Tragic'
Jean Sibelius
Symphony no.1 in E minor, op.39
Symphony no.2 in D major, op.43
Bedrich Smetana
The Bartered Bride (Prodana nevesta) Overture
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Francesca da Rimini, op.32
Suite no.3 in G major, op.55; IV Tema con variazioni: Andante con moto

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