Symphony No.2 in D, Op.73
Sir John Barbirolli
Recorded 6 June 1962 in Coventry Cathedral, England
Reviewed by: Rob Pennock
Reviewed: October 2011
CD No: TESTAMENT SBT 1469
Duration: 44 minutes
This release helps chronicle the opening chapter of a love-affair between one of the world’s great orchestras and one of the twentieth-century’s greatest conductors. Between 1961 and 1970 Sir John Barbirolli conducted the Berlin Philharmonic in a series of concerts that became known as the Barbirolli Festival. The orchestra considered him the finest to have conducted it since Furtwängler, His appearances brought huge final ovations, the audience refusing to the leave the hall even after the orchestra had left and the lights dimmed. Testament has already released three Mahler symphonies featuring this partnership. Here we have Brahms’s Second Symphony given in Coventry Cathedral in June 1962, part of the reconciliation and peace process the Cathedral authorities launched when the new building (the original was destroyed in the blitz of 1940) opened in May 1962 (Britten composed War Requiem for the dedication ceremony). The tapes of the first-half’s Haydn and Vaughan Williams have not survived. What remains is a truly wonderful performance of Brahms.
There are a few health warnings. First, the mono sound is extremely reverberant, and while it is surprisingly well-balanced and transparent in louder passages (where the brass and woodwind are clearly audible), in quieter sections, such as the opening (when the ear has not adjusted) the image is very murky (winds floating in a sepulchral cavern). Second, for those more accustomed to such recent nonsense as chamber orchestras playing Brahms, this is big-scale, interventionist music-making. Thirdly, ensemble is sometimes awry, which is hardly surprising since the musicians would have had huge difficulty in hearing one another in this acoustic.
The performance itself is very different to the concerts with Barbirolli and the Boston Symphony Orchestra (1959) and Bavarian Radio Symphony (1970). This Berlin one has an even greater sense of power and occasion. The opening introductory melodies are plaintively phrased by woodwinds and horns at a steady tempo, which conveys a sense of quiet, tense expectation. The first subject proper brings glorious tone from the upper strings. Barbirolli then moves forward at a slightly faster tempo before relaxing again. Brahms doesn’t do anything so conventional as launch the second subject in the dominant key of A major, rather he uses F sharp minor and the lower strings emphasise the darkness of this cantabile melody. Thankfully, Barbirolli ignores the exposition repeat and moves into a very muscular account of the development, where there are innumerable small changes in tempo and dynamics, a note or chord will be held onto, a phrase lingered over, and yet everything flows beautifully forward on a wave of gorgeous orchestral sound, and the power of the brass is particularly telling. The recapitulation and coda are seamlessly integrated, every aspect of this astonishingly varied movement has been captured and the final chord is an object lesson in weighting, dynamics and balance.
In the slow movement Brahms uses four main themes and at a slightly faster tempo than the marked Adagio non troppo, Barbirolli lets the strings sing in a way that in 1962 perhaps only the Leningrad Philharmonic could equal. The overall mood is that of a rapturous elegy, where cloying sentimentality is never allowed to intrude, and the movement’s sonata-form structure is never compromised. One passage encapsulates Barbirolli’s approach, where at 9’45” onward the spread chords are magically voiced and the final bars bring total peace.
The third-movement Allegretto grazioso begins at a flowing lilting pace and the end of the first statement of the first theme brings a magical slowing, before the ‘trio’ is launched at a fast tempo (few conductors observe the Presto ma non assai marking) but here the speed is varied to an incredible degree – this is positively Mahlerian – and yet Barbirolli gets away with it, such is the depth of concentrattion and wonderful response of the orchetra. The finale is a tour de force of concentrated power-playing. After the brief introductory bars the orchestra explodes and the brass blare out. There is a slight slowing for the big tune and then the performance rolls forward with the big forte chords given exceptional dead-weight. Nothing is hurried, the strings dig in and the lead-up to the restatement of the tune is a rollercoaster ride as the Berlin Philharmonic exults. Nowhere does Barbirolli speed up, he just just springs the rhythms and leaves the orchestra to do the rest. In the coda the brass and timpani are triumphant, capping a performance that is simply right.
Frankly there is no conductor alive today and no orchestra that could approach this level of insight and execution. In a word: glorious.