"You have to keep an icy cool head to conduct Tristan and Mahler's Ninth,
whatever is going on in your heart," Sir John Barbirolli once said. It's
important to bear this quotation in mind when you listen to his interpretations
of Mahler and especially this "live" recording of the Fourth Symphony made
with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Smetana Hall, Prague in January 1967.
For although Barbirolli was always of the "interventionist" school of Mahler
conductors his brand of expressionism never sprang from self-indulgence,
rather a wish to serve the music and the composer as opposed to himself.
After Sir John's death, Michael Kennedy found a quotation from Bertrand Russell
in the conductor's papers: "Nothing is achieved without passion, but underneath
the passion there should always be that large impersonal survey which sets
limits to actions that our passions inspire." So it is in this Mahler Fourth.
There is about it a remarkable air of calculation underpinning the high emotion
and has the effect of throwing a frame around what, under other conductors,
might sound like hamming. The feeling that thought, planning and care has
gone into every bar and, perhaps most important of all, every sound. For
this is a recording where the particular sound of this symphony has been
rendered to a more vivid degree than I have heard in many a long time. There
are problems. This is an orchestra that was not one Barbirolli worked with
often and it was also recorded on tour with all the dangers to ensemble and
note perfection that brings. All the same, this is Barbirolli's Mahler
beautifully represented and in a work he never recorded commercially.
It has appeared before in inferior transfers. One of them (on the Intaglio
label) was off-pitch and had a couple of bars missing from the third movement.
Clarity and sharpness is what this new CD produces with details that
conventionally-recorded versions often miss and infinitely more than the
previous transfers ever gave. A big plus when Barbirolli is so anxious to
recreate a special sound world.
If you like Mahler's Fourth fresh and pure (like under Reiner, for example,
or even Horenstein) or childlike with an innocence and a "Wunderhorn" quality
(like under Kletzki or Kubelik), go no further with Barbirolli. His reading
is more towards a performance in the Mengelberg tradition: a case of putting
yourself in the hands of the gnarled old storyteller, warts and all, and
surrendering to him. You could say this is Mahler's Fourth seen in retrospect
from Mahler's later works. Barbirolli doesn't indulge in quite the excesses
Mengelberg does in his old 1939 recording, but I do think he is closer to
Mengelberg (and Bernstein) than anyone else. Yet that "large impersonal survey"
never deserts him, until the very end at least.
In the tapes made by William Malloch of the old New York players who remembered
playing under Mahler himself we hear how the composer would interpret the
opening theme of this movement and it's as if Barbirolli heard this too,
for in the fourth note you can hear the same slight drag that in Mengelberg
is so accentuated it can annoy on each rehearing. Under Barbirolli it has
the effect of a rather arch "Once upon a time" and is utterly charming. Likewise
his rendering of the second theme, which is marked "Broadly sung", where
Barbirolli takes Mahler at his word. But that appears to be the hallmark
for the strings, cellos especially, in this whole performance. I'm willing
to believe many who know Barbirolli's recordings would be able to identify
this as his work in a blind test. But the strings don't predominate. One
of the special glories of this recording is the prominence given to the
woodwinds, with some very particular phrasing in the oboes early on which
will make anyone who knows the work sit up and take note. I also loved the
sound of the bassoon against the high flutes in the development; a reminder
of Mahler's propensity to pitch highest and lowest against each other that
would reach its apogee in the last movement of the Ninth Symphony. In sum,
I think Barbirolli sees this movement's darker, unhinged side. The pizzicatos
and spiky high woodwinds really protrude from the texture Grimm-like. As
we approach the central crisis of the development it's as if Sir John is
trying also to extract the maximum amount of drama from it, so the section
between 221 and 238, which contains the "Kleiner Appell", is huge and almost
overwhelming. But the passage marked "Mit grosser ton" a little later is
even more so. Barbirolli clearly sees this as the true climax. A real
kaleidoscopic first movement, then, with many details to be heard.
The second movement continues much of Sir John's groundwork from the first
with every detailed attended to. I liked the woodwind chuckling attractively
in the Trios and the clarinet shrieking like a startled bird. In performance
Sir John invariably positioned his harpists at the front of the platform,
right beneath him, and this may account for the fine prominence of the harp
in this movement and in the performance as a whole. The way, tolling bell-like,
it underpins the texture is another memorable sound to come out of this
The harp underpinning is again apparent in the third movement which receives
a performance in the grand Barbirolli manner, spacious and well-upholstered,
broadly sung but also very consciously moulded with the most elastic approach
to tempo in the whole symphony. There are passages here where I was reminded
of Scherchen's Mahler (not that he ever recorded this work) rather than
Mengelberg's, especially in the way tempi suddenly take off at a great speed
only to be reigned back suddenly. There are many fine points of detail brought
out again, though. Most notable are passages for the woodwind that take on
an autumnal sound colouring.
Just before the passage where the gates of heaven are flung open (283-287)
Sir John achieves a real sense of stillness akin to that at the end of the
Ninth symphony and which makes the outburst that crowns the movement that
much more towering. He gives his timpanist his head here also and those who
have the old Intaglio aircheck CD will be pleased to hear the two or three
bars missing from that are restored to us in all their glory.
I want to pay special tribute to the coda of this movement under Sir John.
He sees a perfumed garden, exotic and hazy, and I couldn't help but see Mahler
here as a very distant musical cousin of Frederick Delius and, great Delian
that he was, wondered whether Barbirolli did too. It may not be to everybody's
taste, like the whole of the performance, but it certainly stays in the mind.
The last movement is a relative disappointment. For one thing, marvellous
though she sings, Heather Harper has, for me, the wrong kind of voice for
this movement. She is far too matronly, far to correct, for the boyish quality
that is surely needed. Barbirolli also does himself no favours by adopting
a very slow tempo for the stanzas and an even slower one for the final stanza
of all. The effect is therefore too dreamy most of the time, broken only
by the sudden jolt of his quicker tempo for the incursions of the bells.
It would be wrong to let this reservation spoil what is a remarkable, if
very individual, reading of the work which has needed to be restored officially
to the catalogue for years.
The Berlioz Corsaire Overture that completes the disc was recorded in the
same concert and that explains the incongruous coupling. It's a fine performance,
cutting quite a dash, but is completely out of place straight after the Mahler.
Admirers of Sir John and particularly his Mahler can buy this with confidence.
Those with a Mahler palette ripe for the taste of a strong vintage should
uncork at room temperature and prepare to savour every mouthful. Those whose
Mahler palettes are rather more delicate should seek out something a little
lighter to the taste.