Not that Sir John (1899-1970) knew he was recording for Warner – HMV and Pye, yes, all here in this 109-CD set covering JB’s glorious art between 1928 and the year of his death. An ideal gift for Christmas.
He is most associated with the Manchester-based Hallé Orchestra, and he also recorded (as far as this set is concerned) with the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics, the LSO, and the Philharmonia Orchestra. Many stellar soloists of the day – whether instrumentalists (in Concerto collaborations) or singers – are represented, and the performances are deeply considered, characterful, lived-in, glowing, and generous/big-hearted.
Expansive symphonic works vie for our attention alongside enjoyable examples of the lighter side of musical life (such as Sousa, Johann Strauss II and Suppé) and embracing popular operatic arias.
Composers include Beethoven (a large-scale ‘Eroica’ with the BBC Symphony Orchestra), Brahms’s Four Symphonies in Vienna, Debussy, Dvořák 7, 8 & ‘New World’, Haydn, Mahler 1, 5, 6 & 9 (the latter from Berlin), Mendelssohn’s ‘Italian’, Mozart, Nielsen 4, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (Rome), Ravel, Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande, Schubert 9 (twice), Sibelius’s Seven Symphonies (Hallé), Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen and Heldenleben, Tchaikovsky 4, 5 & ‘Pathétique’, Verdi’s Messa da Requiem and Otello, and Wagner selections.
Plenty of British music – Bax (Tintagel), Delius, Elgar (Gerontius, both Symphonies, Falstaff, two versions of Enigma Variations and several of the Introduction and Allegro), Purcell, Rubbra’s Fifth Symphony, Vaughan Williams.
There are many celebrated recordings here that have gone hand-in-hand with longevity – and they will continue to thrive in this handsome (including original LP-cover artwork) and convenient Warner presentation. The new transfers are superb, bringing sound that is fresh, vivid and tangible: the years simply fall away.
My favourite maestro because he wasn’t really too grounded to put on airs and graces.
The results shine forth. Some better than others. His last Elgar was disapproved of by critics as too slow. Today we soak up the atmosphere, happily.
His Sibelius became slower in time. Symphonies 3,4 and 6 were not based on long performing experience and so are short of firepower. Except 4 which stuns me to the core. How did he enter this strange world after such little time before hand to acclimatise?
It is one of my very favourites .
His generosity of spirit is evidence of his pure humanity everywhere which also makes him, to
my mind, one of the very greatest conductors in the 20th century.
I have the fondest memories of Sir John.
I first worked with him and the Hallé orchestra in 1968 – we played the Schumann concerto – and I arrived at his home earlier that freezing cold day of the concert as he was too poorly to give the orchestral rehearsal that afternoon. The door was opened by a rather dishevelled looking chap in his dressing gown and I said ‘I’ve come to meet Sir John Barbirolli’. Back came the answer ‘That’s me’!
He couldn’t have been nicer or more approachable – qualities possessed by all at the very top of their discipline, whatever it is. They know their abilities but remain full of humility, though rightly not suffering fools gladly.
When working with Barbirolli in concert, I felt in an exalted state and totally free as floating on a cloud. That Schumann concerto with him was inspiring to me, especially as we didn’t have an orchestral rehearsal – I only had a brief chat with him at his home.
Such happy memories are so vivid. A truly great conductor.
Not sure if it’s totally apposite here, but would like to add that John Lill is also a very nice, humane, generous and often very funny person, quite apart from his brilliant gifts as a pianist. I still have a delightful letter from him to John (McC). John Lill was also very generous to us in respect of a concert for the local music society that John and I started – and did a wonderful concert here.
Within the set is a recording of part two of The Dream of Gerontius from a live performance given in Manchester Town Hall in 1951. The cast is superb: Marjorie Thomas, Parry Jones (then 60) and Marian Nowakowski. Thomas gives a wonderfully clear, sensitive, accurate, sympathetic performance. Nowakowski is imperious and caring at the same time. God would have no option but to listen to this pleading! Jones, rightly slightly detached, is also sensitive to the words and his dialogue with Thomas is as subtle and good as any I have heard. Michael Kennedy refers to a performance under Barbirolli the previous year (BBCSO) with Jones which he considered ‘the greatest account of the work I expect to hear’. Thomas takes the ‘high’ options with no sign of strain. For me, she was a revelation; one of the great Angels in my book. Overall there are the dominant hands of Barbirolli. From the beginning (alas only of part two) the attention to tempi and dynamics betrays the master behind the performance. It is an urgent one, brooking no nonsense. The Hallé chorus is first class (a superb semi-chorus) as is the orchestra. This is a thrilling and important find and despite an obvious downside had me on the edge of my seat. I presume this was recorded on acetate discs and there are one or two hiatuses as well as three bars missing after Cue 55. The chorus seems recessed at first but is then brought into clearer focus after the Demons (wonderfully nasal) and the dynamic range is greater than I expected. However, after the great chorus ‘Praise to the Holiest’, the surfaces deteriorate considerably. Somehow the engineers have managed to separate the music from the ‘crackle’, but this change is very obvious. Despite that, this performance has everything: great singing, drive, tension, intimacy and finally heart-easing release. It is a wonder! Let us hope that somewhere, somehow, part one is discovered one day.
Together with the recent Sony box of almost all of Barbirolli’s New York Philharmonic recordings and the Barbirolli Society’s very many CDs of live performances and pre-HMV commercial recordings, this mammoth box would appear to complete the Barbirolli discography in meritorious style. I hope, however, that the HMV-owned New York Philharmonic 78 sets – of the two Schumann string concertos: that for Violin with Menuhin and for Cello with Piatigorsky are here: they could not appear in the Sony box but there’s no mention of the New York Philharmonic in the above list of international orchestras. I do hope these recordings have not been overlooked. JB was a very great conductor and it is good to see his art available in such a manner.
Bob, the two Schumann string concertos that you mention are certainly included by Warner, on CD 78; London Philharmonic 1934 for the cello work, New York 1938 for the violin piece in which Menuhin is wonderful. This disc also includes Mozart’s Oboe Concerto played by Evelyn Rothwell, Lady Barbirolli. Colin
The august company above has said it all, really. Barbirolli was part of my musical awakening. That expansive 1964 Elgar 2 on 3 LP sides (Falstaff on Side 4) saw me through school. Not for people in a hurry, certainly, but full of love. One of my Desert Island JB recordings is Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini with the New Philharmonia. It’s ‘late’ Barbirolli, weighty and full of fire (and magnificently engineered) like the roughly contemporary Mahler 5 with the same orchestra. What a shame that session time ran out for Romeo and Juliet (the Barbirolli Society issued this without the funeral march Epilogue). I heard JB ‘live’ only once – at a Halle prom not so long before his death (Sibelius 3 and Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto with Charles Rosen). His wife Evelyn and he came out of the RAH’s Artists’ Entrance, and he looked so frail. I suspect he was about to be driven back to Manchester, and she bade him ‘safe journey, darling’. This 16 year-old schoolboy was both star-struck and very touched.
Sir John’s Cheltenham Festival appearances were a part of my musical upbringing. The ‘last night’ would end with Sir John talking to us and commenting on the beauty of the surrounding countryside versus what the developers were doing by way of destroying the Georgian inheritance. When Vaughan Williams was present near the end of his life, and we heard the ‘London” Symphony, he had said to Sir john in rehearsal that he wished that he could ‘still score like that’! When I was at school, we were once trooped down to Gloucester Cathedral to hear a Three Choirs orchestral rehearsal. There was Sir John talking to the orchestra but such were the acoustics, we couldn’t understand a word he said. Incidentally he used to preface concerts with the National Anthem facing the audience before turning back to the Hallé…