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Gustav MAHLER (1860 -1911)
Symphony No.6 in A minor ‘Tragic’ (1904-06) [84:05]
Richard STRAUSS (1864 – 1949)
Metamorphosen (1945) [27:18]
New Philharmonia Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli
rec. 1967
Presto download – not available in all countries
WARNER CLASSICS 9029509030 [111:23]

The first thing to mention about this Hi-Res download of Barbirolli’s Mahler Sixth and Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen is its size – it weighs in at just over 4GB. That is a serious amount of disc space. But it also begs the question of how you listen to this, if what you hear is better than the alternatives and whether it’s worth the £18 it will set you back.

These 1967 recordings have always had the blessing of very good sound. The Mahler was recorded over three sessions – 17th – 18th August, and the Strauss in a single one on 22nd August (the orchestra had, incidentally, given Mahler’s Ninth in Paris under Klemperer a few months earlier, just the second performance of the work in France). Both are better, in my view, than Barbirolli’s New Philharmonia Mahler Fifth which comes from a slightly later vintage; that was also recorded at a lower volume than this Mahler Sixth in my opinion. Both recordings have one thing in common, however, and that is the superlative detail from within the orchestra; much better than you will hear on anything that DG ever achieved for either Karajan or Bernstein. Indeed, Barbirolli’s Mahler is pretty much a revelation, especially if you have a score in front of you. Few performances allow you to follow the music quite so closely and accurately as these EMI recordings. They are, and remain, in my view two of the greatest stereophonic achievements in the Mahler discography – whatever the merits of the performances.

I have spent quite some time listening to both the Hi-Res FLAC [192kHz 24 bit] and CD FLAC [44.1kHz 16 bit] and both, from the master tapes, are an improvement – albeit not a radical one – on the Great Recording of the Century CD FLAC. Warner had already established a very high bar and any room for any changes in sound quality would likely be modest rather than pivot on anything that overhauled the previous release. That GROC remastering had been superb and none of that is lost here. None of Barbirolli is lost either; he is frequently audible (an unkind soul might think he is snoring during the, admittedly, spacious ‘Allegro energico, ma non troppo’ which certainly doesn’t begin anywhere near the written tempo).

There’s no denying that the orchestral playing here is very special, and often goes beyond that. The better the equipment you listen to this on, the more this is amplified. The New Philharmonia Orchestra could be a bit of a chameleon in 1968. For some conductors it could be a sloppy orchestra; for others, it could be incendiary and unquestionably one of the great orchestras. Barbirolli could certainly be meticulous with detail in performances, to the extent many simply had no life left in them. A Barbirolli record sometimes sounds as if it has literally had the blood drained from it. This was not the case with his Philharmonia recordings; indeed, put this conductor and orchestra together and the results were often a revelation. If Barbirolli’s relationship with the Hallé was a fading love affair, then his relationship with the Philharmonia was that of the adulterer with its combustible passion.

Forget the odd tempo here and there in this Mahler Sixth; focus instead on how Barbirolli takes the time to care about balancing minor – but important – instruments like the harp, or how you’ll hear stray woodwind solos buried under a halo of brass which will suddenly rise through them. Barbirolli, the cellist, takes great pleasure in stoking those lower Philharmonia strings: open your ears and it’s into the door of a furnace thickened with dense black smoke; not the intense, searing heat one might normally expect. In high-definition these strings give off the impression they are weighed down with lead; you wonder what bows on earth could make that darkest of sounds you hear from 20’55 in the Finale. It isn’t just shattering. It’s suffocating, like being buried alive under earth.

Barbirolli imposes this massive weight – it’s toweringly Gothic – firstly on the listener in the symphony’s opening bars. But the tempo is all wrong. Listen to Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic in a fabulous live performance from Paris on 17th June 1977 (available on ysl’s Karajan Edition, vol.5), who are at the opposite end of the spectrum, and they take this opening like a volley of inexorably militaristic cannon fire; the precision is jaw-dropping. But if this Barbirolli wasn’t so well recorded those opening bars might not sound as truly horrifying as they do. Whatever might be right – and thrilling – about the Karajan, it’s the terror of the Barbirolli that gets under your skin. The strings tremble, shudder, but there isn’t the volley of sound which you hear on so many other recordings; instead, it’s the feeling of its power raining down on you. You’re in the middle of a battlefield: some of what rains down are near misses; others are direct hits. Karajan really doesn’t have the time to leave much slaughter in his wake after the opening of Mahler’s Sixth; Barbirolli, his orchestra and the engineers leave a trail of it behind them.

EMI brings this wonderful orchestra alive. You hear it in the GROC mastering rather beautifully, but the Hi-Res manages to give it a slightly more widescreen angle: the sense that the orchestra is entirely three dimensional, that it has a depth to its layers which can make you seem you are hearing different instruments from variable vantage points.

If you listen from [4:08] in the first movement up until [4:40] it is striking how you can hear the harps to the left of the strings, the woodwind coming from behind the strings and the timpani behind them. This is, of course, how it ought to sound. But what is obvious rarely makes it onto a recording, however. It does here. This recording is littered with so many moments of perfect highlighting, where a balance is memorably phrased, where an instrument is heard sometimes, you think, for the first time. This is an illumination.

I won’t go into Barbirolli’s placing of the Andante second – that I will leave for my survey of Mahler’s Sixth in 2021. This is the one movement least likely to cause an engineer a problem, and most likely the conductor. At that great blushingly romantic theme [5:48] Barbirolli gets the Philharmonia strings to play with the surging passion I want to hear – and we get a stunning harp at [6:18], something difficult to bring off in a recording of a live performance (it’s not there at all on the Karajan/Paris Mahler 6). On the other hand, Barbirolli and the Philharmonia strings are weak at the entry into the climax [11:49], with almost no ballast to the cellos and basses. It’s entirely possible the Andante was recorded in a different session, using a very different microphone placement, and a general re-positioning of the string sound does suggest this, or Barbirolli just wanted a much leaner one. His tempi are certainly swifter by this stage of the symphony – and more so than Karajan (who takes almost 18-minutes) in Paris. However, Yevgeny Svetlanov, in a stunning live performance with the NHK Symphony Orchestra (King KKC-2215/16) gives to my ears the richest sounding and most organic climax of any modern recording [11:23]. Svetlanov uses what is his orchestra’s greatest asset – its strings; Barbirolli has forgotten about his, and none of the masterings, in whatever format, can make a difference to that.

But what a difference a day, or a different Barbirolli, makes when we come to the great Finale of this symphony. It is thrilling, its proportions gigantic and the sound a magnificent achievement.

The level of ear-to-ear shifting is quite something in the first two minutes alone. You’ll hear a string pizzicato in the right ear; only to hear harp pizzicatos in the left, all with stunning clarity. And you can almost feel the fingers to the touch on the harp strings; it is that tactile. Because of the way the brass are seated the picture is entirely panoramic, the instruments shifting in colour from one side to the other. And yet, despite this seating it’s remarkable how centralised the sound of the orchestra can be [5:00 onwards]. The great timpani apex at [5:30] which on some recordings seems to lose focus remains entirely within it here. At [10:39] you get to hear in the distance – eerily dead centre acoustically – the faint echo of a cowbell; one bar of harp glissandi emerging through massed strings and brass at [13:06] and a triplet of bars of them just before the [15:00] mark. The spatiality is just astonishing.

This recording can capture two very different facets of the New Philharmonia in quite a striking way, and both are best amplified in the Finale. From [15:15] you hear the orchestra at its most romantic and luminous; their woodwind is the glory it always was. But from [16:02] we get that savage second face. The scope of the engineering is that it captures almost every note there is. It also manages to make this music sound incredibly opulent while at the same time bringing terror to it. What an illusion Barbirolli, his orchestra and the engineers create as it all collapses into glacially descending strings, ghostly harps, the death knell stroke of a bass drum as we are being pushed to the cliff edge of those final devastating cellos, perhaps never as bleakly done as they are here. The closing pages of the symphony are shattering (and you can still hear the almost inaudible pianissimo on the snare drum fading to its absolutely final note in the distance at [30:38]). A peculiarity of the sound in these closing bars is that it almost gives the impression of waves gently washing out into the sea, an odd act of finality in itself.

I have long had issues with Barbirolli’s interpretation of Strauss’s Metamorphosen. Perhaps this has something to do with the speculative meaning of the work; I lean towards a more Goethean reading, whilst I find Barbirolli’s to be more expressionistic, typical of this conductor at his more excessive. I do, however, find the New Philharmonia’s strings unquestionably beautiful throughout and have always warmed to the weight of them. You get through the sound here a very real sense of where the players are seated as well – as you do on the Mahler. The lack of antiphonal strings in the Mahler didn’t always give a balanced sound but in the Metamorphosen this isn’t so important. The cellos, which again Barbirolli lavishes so much attention on, can be brawny in the recording, but this is outweighed by their rich tone [18:40 – 19:50].

I don’t think the depth of the sound and the panoramic range of the strings – and I don’t detect a huge difference on either the highest or lowest bit rates here – does anything to suppress the sheer monumentality of this performance. Its scale exceeds that of Klemperer (with the same orchestra) and Karajan (with the Berlin Philharmonic) by some distance. One theory could be this has less to do with Barbirolli and more to do with the sound engineers simply capturing the natural sound of the Philharmonia strings. I don’t think this HD download will soften opinions about the performance, and in some cases it may harden them. Sonically, it’s spectacular but for many listeners the richness and the depth of the sound might make it too uncomfortably close to the Finale of Mahler’s Sixth.

So, to return to the questions I asked in the first paragraph. Many people are of the view that Hi-Res recordings of 192kHz are not particularly recommendable because the ear cannot tell the difference above the level of a 44.1kHz disc. I think it is fundamentally true that there would be almost a negligible difference – or none at all – that most listeners would experience between the two FLAC downloads on this recording. What you hear on the 192kHz you hear on the lower Res recording, even down to the minutest details. What my ear does detect is a warmer acoustic to the higher Res one; instruments sound slightly less bright in almost every section of the orchestra; I prefer this in the violins. I sometimes thought I heard marginally greater depth, but this might have been an illusion. This is one of those few recordings you hear where you feel you are sat somewhere within the orchestra; although in some ways, the perspective actually seems closer to that of the conductor.

My own view of Barbirolli’s Mahler Sixth has changed because of these downloads. The Andante/Scherzo problem can be resolved by re-numbering the movements should I wish and I’m less troubled by Barbirolli’s first movement than I once was – Karajan, and many other conductors are more or less as broad; they just treat the opening differently. His Andante has weaknesses; more than I have noticed previously. The recording and engineering – and Barbirolli’s attention to detail – is phenomenal. His Finale is one of the greatest on disc. The New Philharmonia play as if their lives depended on it; the scale of their playing is just monumental. It’s one of the great Mahler performances. The 52-year-old sound is still a gold standard.

There is a £6 price point difference between the two downloads. I don’t think anyone would be disappointed with the 44.1kHz/16 bit FLACS, although despite its unwieldy size (and my diminishing hard space) I shall continue to listen to the 192kHz one. I listened using both Sennheiser Momentum and Sony WH-1000XM3 headphones, with and without FiiO Hi-Res audio DAC.

Marc Bridle
 







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