Two months after Sir John Barbirolli's death in 1970 the Mahler scholar Deryck
Cooke wrote to Barbirolli's biographer Michael Kennedy to declare this 1969
BBC broadcast recording of Mahler's Third, made under studio conditions in
Manchester's Free Trade Hall, "one of the finest Mahler performances I have
ever heard" and to inform Kennedy he had been trying to persuade EMI to issue
it. Cooke explained EMI were interested instead in a live recording of a
Berlin Philharmonic performance by Sir John eight weeks before. "As I didn't
hear the German tape," Cooke went on, "I couldn't argue with EMI; but I do
know that the Barbirolli-Hallé tape of Mahler 3 is superior to the
Barbirolli- Berlin Phil disc of Mahler 9 for two very good reasons: Barbirolli's
special relationship with the Hallé and the Hallé's now complete
familiarity with Mahler's music. The Berlin Phil may be a finer orchestra,
but they just haven't any Mahler tradition - they hardly ever perform his
symphonies. In any case, the Hallé play most beautifully on the BBC
Mahler 3 recording and the BBC's Manchester engineer achieved a superb balance,
Nothing came of EMI's plans. Years after Cooke's death, an aircheck of the
Berlin recording allowed us to hear what Cooke did not. Now, almost 30 years
after, we can hear what it was in the BBC recording that so impressed him
and decide whether his instinct in preferring this was correct. I can tell
you it was and for the reasons he gave. While there's no denying the Berlin
Philharmonic has greater tonal élan and depth, the Hallé's
grasp of the idiom, allied to their empathy with the man who had been their
chief for twenty-seven years, is complete. In addition, there are times when
even the famed Berliners' prowess is tested to breaking point where those
same passages are negotiated by the Hallé with aplomb.
Sir Simon Rattle's new recording followed live performances too. This time
at Symphony Hall in Birmingham and must have benefited from that also. Though
where the Hallé recording would have been taped "as live" the Rattle
has signs of being a more carefully prepared affair and perhaps some spontaneity
is sacrificed in exchange for accuracy when the two are compared. Rattle's
sound recording is rich, deep and well-upholstered. Very much concert hall
balance with a wide spread left and right and good front-to-back perspective.
Barbirolli's, on the other hand, is closer-in, almost a conductor's balance
with every detail of the score clear. Some may find the balance of the brass
troublesome as there's no doubt they're favoured. But with superb 20-bit
remastering it all now comes over bold, brassy and exuberant. Rather like
the symphony and Sir John's interpretation of it.
To execute a successful Third the conductor has to do two things before anything
else. First, realise that, in spite of the fact that the work falls into
Mahler's "anthologising" strand (along with Klagende Lied, the Second and
Eighth Symphonies), the overriding structural imperative linking the six
movements is a pattern of ascending steps based on the concept of the
evolutionary ladder within Pantheistic cosmology. In general terms 1] Inorganic
nature, 2] Plant and vegetable life, 3] Animal life, 4] Human life represented
as spiritual darkness, 5] Heavenly life represented as childish innocence,
leading to 6] God expressed through Love. The conductor who fails to see
this "ladder of ascent" is one who, among other things, makes the mistake
of concentrating too hard on getting the first and last movements right and
neglecting the movements in between; treating them as interludes rather than
steps along the journey to perfection fashioned out of the world around and
But that isn't to say the first movement does not have a degree of independence
from the others. Mahler designates it Part I with the remaining movements
Part II. This leads to the second thing the conductor must do and that is
render the disparate elements of the first movement into a whole when the
nature of its thirty-plus minute length sets it on course for structural
failure. What it comes down to is the necessity for no presence of doubt
on the part of the conductor as to the movement's greatness. A hard thing
to quantify. It's something you know is there at a very deep level
at certain "way points" in the movement and in the way you can give in to
its atmosphere, hallucinatory qualities, its own lack of doubt in itself.
I think it's also true that a conductor's confidence in the rightness of
Mahler's vision in the first movement stands him in good stead for the rest,
because those conductors who get the first aspect right tend to get the second
right too and I believe Barbirolli and Rattle are of that number. No matter
what observations one might care to make about their treatment of sections,
matters of phrasing, dynamics and expression, their vision of the work as
a journey upwards in a series of steps is undiminished, as too is their grasp
of the first movement's totality and their lack of doubt as to its worth.
With Barbirolli the opening on all eight horns is bold in sound, vigorous
in delivery, rude and raucous. The clear recording also allows us to hear
the grumbles on percussion as primeval nature bestirs. But the uprushes on
the lower strings during the opening "Schwer und dumpf" section are
disappointing. It isn't as if they seem "out of phase" as in the Horenstein
recording, rather the favouring of the brass reduces their impact when compared
with recordings where they are made to "kick" at this point. The section
at 132-147 which introduces Pan as he sleeps contains a ripe delivery of
the big trombone solo and when other members of the section join, forward
and close-miked, the effect of their lament comes over as black as doom.
You may hear more cultured playing from great international ensembles but
there's no denying the corybantic edge of the Hallé players.
Rattle's horns open the work with more sense of space, physical and musical.
Each note is spaced out more deliberately and the horns themselves sound
more elemental, less penetrating. Overall the brass of the CBSO are much
more cultured and cushioned than the Hallé. There's no doubt they
offer a better blend but there is some loss in character, especially the
trombone solos which are very well-mannered indeed. The strings are better
balanced in the Rattle recording too and there appear to be more of them.
This means that the uprushes from the lower strings really shudder from the
very depths and offer what is missing in the Barbirolli recording.
The principal role of what passes as Exposition is the delivery of the huge
march meant to signify Summer's arrival. Mahler loved his marches and this
one is his most energizing. So it comes over under Barbirolli. More important
is the way he gives the impression of the march beginning from a distance,
getting nearer, then, as it goes past, sweeping us along. The moment of its
arrival has a particular quality which I can't imagine any other orchestra
bringing. If Mahler was inspired by workers in Vienna, Barbirolli seems to
have in mind the holiday resorts in the north of England at the height of
Summer. There's about his rendition a hint of the Promenade at Blackpool
with the whiff of fish and chips, the sun catching the silver paper on the
"Kiss Me Quick" hats and the taste of petrol from charabancs depositing mill
girls from the looms of Manchester. Rattle's march is finely done also. In
terms of tempo and weight grander than Barbirolli. But I think it's missing
the latter's greater sense of the approach from the far distance and also
has less impudent swagger.
Then at 347 we are dragged back to the natural world with all its force and
splendour as the horns roar out a theme from back at the start, and the
Development is underway. I like the way Barbirolli balances his brass sections
in what follows. It shows the value of the orchestra having played in a couple
of live performances before the recording, adding a sense of security. The
important passage 530-642 is where Mahler develops on the idea of
marching and marks each section differently, something a conductor must take
note of. "The Rabble", "The Battle Begins", "The South Storm" are all
acknowledged and this has the effect of making the music seem to comment
on itself - an extraordinary concept. Under Barbirolli I was also put in
mind of some of the wilder sections of Ives in the way the marches, broken
down into constituent moods, criss-cross in a mesmerising half-nightmare.
In the passage leading up to this I felt Rattle could have learned a lot
from the example of his older colleague. Barbirolli never loses track of
the plot here where Rattle seemed to. He redeems himself in the "Ivesian"
section but then lets the music sag again in the long, dreamy section before
the march resumes for the Recapitulation. With Rattle my attention wandered
here where with Barbirolli I remained riveted - a benefit from the fact that
Sir John did the whole movement in a single take, perhaps ? Apart from this,
there is some really lovely playing from the Hallé cellos prior to
the return of the march proper. Their portamenti a quintessential Barbirolli
fingerprint we will hear more of in the last movement.
All this is swept away because the march has one more appearance, shorn of
Ivesian nightmare, again emerging from a distance, approaching and arriving
in our midst. This second time I was even more aware on the Barbirolli of
the long crescendo that will bring about a conclusion to this extraordinary
movement. The frenzy of the end itself, starting at Figure 74 where the orchestra
explodes into wild and crazy vistas, is well brought off. Though not even
Barbirolli can match Horenstein on Unicorn-Kanchana, whose LSO brass are
absolutely shattering. Rattle cushions the climaxes a little at the end.
One gets the impression he might be wanting to save something up for the
end, not fire off all his bullets too soon.
I've heard recordings where the interpretation of the second movement is
such that the conductor allows it to barely peep out from beneath the weight
of what preceded it. A pity because the second movement is subtler than is
sometimes realised. For it to make an effect as part of the whole the conductor
must lavish the same care on it he would everything else. Barbirolli's walk
through the flowers in the meadows doesn't take the pretty route all the
time. There are stinging nettles beyond the blooms and we stumble into them
quite often in the way the woodwind allow spiky sounds to come through.
The rhythm is also nicely pointed when the tempo picks up. Which means when
it relaxes into lyricism the effect is that much more nostalgic. With a slightly
broader tempo Rattle can point up more details too, but I think he loses
some of the bite that Barbirolli gives it, some of the sting. There is a
gain here and that is in the impression of dreaminess: a more continental
landscape, perhaps. It has to be said Rattle demands and gets more portamenti
from his strings in this movement, the kind Sir John would have approved
Barbirolli adopts a very slightly slower tempo in the third movement than
we are used to, but this allows a little more room to make rhythmic points
and to bring out the character of the piece. I don't think I've heard the
rollicking brass descents at two bars before Fig 9 and likewise before Fig.
23 delivered quite so loud and with such precision. Barbirolli must have
drilled his players meticulously here and their contributions come off superbly.
Rattle has nothing approaching it, but then, by now, such a sound would have
been out of place.
The crucial posthorn episode, our first tentative glimpse of humanity, is
beautifully prepared by Barbirolli, but the first posthorn is a little
disappointing. The player is fine, the problem is he's too close to make
that dreamy effect Mahler wanted. However the section between the two appearances
of the posthorn makes up for any misgivings by being raucous and loud. You
gain the impression that the orchestra are really enjoying themselves here.
The second posthorn solo is placed further away, but this is where he should
have been the first time around.
The opening woodwinds of the CBSO for Rattle show more character than their
Hallé counterparts and they are more cultured and refined. It's really
a question of taste as to which you prefer. Rattle is also anxious to luxuriate
more in the details of this movement where Barbirolli is the more extrovert.
This leads to an unforgettable delivery of the posthorn solos in the Rattle
recording, exactly what was missing in the Barbirolli. The lead up is given
a deliberate slowing down too. In the live performance it was a piece of
concert hall "theatre" worthy of Furtwangler. In the recording the player
impinges into our aural imagination from a huge distance, sounding as if
he is out of the hall altogether, on the top of the Rotunda surveying the
Bull Ring, perhaps; serenading the Balti takeaway queues and the traffic
jams around New Street Station. In the interlude between the two Posthorn
passages Rattle then coaxes his muted brass players to cluck like an expectant
hen house - "What the animals tell me", indeed.
If the posthorn represents the first appearance of humanity, raw nature has
the final word with the passage at bars 529-556: a crescendo from ppp to
fff followed by a diminuendo back down to pppp, replete with harp glissandi.
This passage has at its centre a development of one of the bird call motifs
to become "The heavy shadow of lifeless nature" rearing up on horns and
trombones, all fecund strength. It links back to the first movement and forward
to the end and is a key moment of crisis which should be marked with special
emphasis. Barbirolli prided himself on being able to recognise the highlights
and climaxes in each Mahler symphony and there's no doubt he gives this passage
everything it can stand with a huge rearing-up of sound whose mood doesn't
lift even through the dash to the end where darkness now beckons. Rattle
is more reined-back in this passage and, in comparison with Barbirolli,
disappointed me rather. He seemed more concerned with the beauty of sound
that can be drawn from this moment rather than its earthy, elemental ugliness.
But it's a valid point of view and the orchestra certainly delivers what
Under Barbirolli I would have liked more Stygian gloom for the fourth movement,
a setting of Nietzsche's "Oh Mensch", the first appearance in the work of
the human voice. I think the recording balance must take some blame here.
Kerstin Meyer is a fine singer, but you can hear just too much of her for
her contribution to be as mysterious as it ought to be. This is not the case
in the Rattle recording where the backward depth in the sound stage means
that it starts with a considerable advantage, and Birgit Remmert emerges
from way back, singing with greater insight into the words and character
of her part than Meyer. The difference that another generation of Mahler
performing brings ?
The biggest difference with Rattle is that it's in this fourth movement his
renowned concern for bringing out every detail of the score leads to a
controversial decision. There is an important solo part for the principal
oboe and Mahler's instruction to the player is "hinaufziehen". I'll just
say I have never heard an oboist play his/her contribution in this movement
quite like this. A friend who was at one of the live performances described
the sound produced by CBSO principal oboe Jonathan Kelly as "an extraordinary
upwards glissando". It sounds to me like a Tom cat on a wall mewing for a
mate on a warm Summer's night. Rattle may have interpreted exactly what Mahler
asks for, (or he may not), but hearing something I'm so familiar with played
in a way I'm so UNfamiliar with makes me wonder whether this is a case of
"an unsightly carbuncle on the face of an old and dear friend": a detail
With Barbirolli a nice contrast arrives with the boys and women in the fifth
movement which is a return to the Wunderhorn world, heralding dawn with bells.
The boys of Manchester Grammar School are nowhere near the pretty angels
we are used to elsewhere. These are urchins from the mean streets of Manchester
and they give an earthier quality to match the purer sounds of the women
and the darker tone of Kerstin Meyer. Rattle adds girls to his boys and so
there is a difference between his fifth movement and many others too. In
comparison with Barbirolli there is more warmth overall but less contrast.
I prefer Barbirolli's unvarnished honesty, though Rattle's orchestral
accompaniment is very telling.
For the last movement to crown the work perhaps something more spiritual,
more inner ,is needed than what Barbirolli delivers. Compared with
some Barbirolli is more expressive, moulded, given to "heart-on-sleeve".
But one is overwhelmed by the big-heartedness of it as a true journey's end
that couldn't have been won by this conductor any other way. Notice the
expressive rubato, a particular Barbirolli trait, also the singing line of
cello portamenti, another speciality. The Hallé could do all this
almost by telepathy by then so it's no wonder it's in the last movement the
Berliners sound under strain. Barbirolli's inability to resist speeding up
at moments of release later on in the movement also spoil this movement's
serenity a little. But take that away and it would not have been a Barbirolli
performance. So accept it and go with it. The end is built to masterly fashion
within Barbirolli's warm-hearted view. Again he presses forward in the closing
pages a little harder than is comfortable and he can't resist almost a luftpause
before the last chord of all.
Rattle is more restrained than Barbirolli in the last movement and, I think,
for the better. He has a degree of expression a few notches beneath Sir John's
and does supply more of that inner spirituality the movement benefits from.
He doesn't slow up too much, though. He agrees with Sir John the movement
should have an ebb and flow, but his ebb and flow is within narrower limits.
The string players in Birmingham have more weight of tone too and seem better
able to deliver a true pianissimo and more levels of dynamic than their
Manchester counterparts who were, perhaps, given a separate agenda. At the
close Rattle reins back his tempo where Barbirolli presses forward and the
end under him is perhaps a degree or so more satisfying, even though with
Barbirolli you are still aware of the end of an epic journey and an end that
satisfies just as much but in its own way.
If you are looking for a modern version of Mahler's Third, superbly recorded
and played, with a care for detail that takes you deep into the complexities
of this remarkable work, look no further than Rattle. (Though be aware of
that oboe in the fourth movement.) But if, like me, you already have one
of those and are looking for a record of one of the great Mahlerians of the
previous generation in this particular work (to go with Horenstein, Kubelik
and Bernstein, perhaps) you must have Barbirolli. His potent mixture of
experience and emotion is a special event you will return to often.