Free Trade Hall, Manchester, 18 December 1969. The BBC Radio 3 announcer sets the scene in rounded tones and a few words. Sir John Barbirolli’s seventieth-birthday had been on December 2. When he enters, twenty-seven years as the Hallé’s conductor, he receives a long and heartfelt ovation. The first music heard is the UK National Anthem, signalling good if mono sound for this concert’s first publication.
From there to a splendidly lived-in and malleable account of Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro – a Barbirolli speciality, he made six commercial recordings of it – the Hallé strings (leader Martin Milner) in top form, dynamic and passionate.
Barbirolli (1899-1970, George Szell died the following day, July 30, two great conductors gone within twenty-four hours) didn’t make a studio version of Vaughan Williams’s Sixth Symphony (Sir Adrian Boult, the work’s first interpreter, made three while JB was alive), but there are at least two previous off-air releases, from Boston and Bavarian Radio. His Manchester take on it is propulsive and ardent, the playing occasionally shaky if dedicated, but all comes from within the music. Best are the ominous second movement and the ethereal/bleached pianissimo Finale, for the Scherzo third, like the first, lacks the last degree of the essential cutting edge this music needs.
Beethoven 7 was another Symphony JB didn’t take into the studio (as far as I know). From the Free Trade Hall, following a presentation to Sir John, it’s a stately affair, warm-hearted if not without rhythmic incisiveness and vivid fortissimos, and with generous expression throughout. Nothing is rushed, but there’s no dawdle either, not least in the Trio, although Toscanini is the exemplar here. A ten-minute Finale suggests either the exposition repeat or a very sluggish tempo. Neither, for every last clap is retained, for three minutes. It could have been usefully trimmed to get us to JB’s address to the audience that bit sooner. The rest of disc two is filled with tributes to him and an interview.
Any biographical background omitted here is to be found in Robert Matthew-Walker’s booklet note for SJB 1098-99 (2 CDs).