BBC Legends – Sir John Barbirolli

0 of 5 stars

Symphony No.7 in E [Nowak Edition]Beethoven
Egmont, Op.84 – Overture
The Creatures of Prometheus, Op.43 – Overture

Hallé Orchestra
Sir John Barbirolli

Bruckner recorded in the Free Trade Hall, Manchester on 26 April 1967; Egmont from Free Trade Hall on 1 December 1966; Prometheus recorded in the Royal Festival Hall, London on 30 April 1969

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: November 2006
BBCL 4186-2
Duration: 77 minutes

The first time I came across Barbirolli’s Bruckner was when I picked up a BBC Classics CD of the Eighth Symphony and I then acquired ‘pirate’ US discs of the last three symphonies with the Berlin Philharmonic – of which more anon. BBC Legends has since released Bruckner 8 and 9 with the Hallé Orchestra and both performances display that Barbirolli – thank heavens – doesn’t hang around in these sprawling masterpieces, and this Seventh clocks in at a sprightly 62 minutes. I am not greatly bothered about editions, but do prefer to have the cymbal crash at the climax of the slow movement as you get here in Leopold Nowak’s edition (or when the percussion is added to Robert Haas’s publication. Barbirolli’s Eighth (now on BBC Legends) was widely acclaimed as a great performance, but the Hallé Ninth (also Legends) divided opinion, as I imagine No.7 will too.

Barbirolli – like Toscanini – often brought lyrical fluidity to Austro-German music and the first subject of Bruckner’s opening movement is sung elegiacally with subtle use of portamento. There is some lack of tension in the remainder of the somewhat meandering exposition, but tempo changes are kept to a minimum (more a feature of Haas’s editing). Throughout the movement there is textural clarity and a fine balancing of instrumental lines and the climaxes do grow naturally; nevertheless it is only in the melancholic string-led sections that Barbirolli seems completely at one with the music.

Similarly, in the Adagio, the string lines sing and the tempo is never allowed to wildly fluctuate, but the overall effect is slightly tentative and, paradoxically – given the control of tempo –, there is a lack of inevitability and coherence to the music-making. The scherzo is let down by tentative string playing at the opening, and here one cannot but think of the filmed rehearsal sequence in which Barbirolli spends ages trying to get the Hallé’s lower strings to correctly articulate this passage. Unfortunately throughout the outer sections of the movement there is a lack of real power and drive, although the gorgeously phrased trio brings some compensation. Much the same can be said of the finale; the tempo is fine and, for the most part, maintained, but there is a sense of tiredness, and a lack of real conviction and concentration. Having said that I would still much rather hear Barbirolli’s undoubted humanity and fleetness than the hopelessly bloated sprawl of say – amongst many others – Celibidache.

In the Beethoven overtures Barbirolli conducts a fine, but slightly under-powered Egmont (the sound of which, as for the Bruckner, carries distortion and a restricted dynamic range) and one of the greatest performances of Prometheus I have heard. Here there is a very slow, and commanding, introduction – which will have ‘authentic’ instrument followers turning in their antiseptic graves – and this gives way to a beautifully sprung and phrased allegro. The whole work dances by with biting f and ff chords and a real sense of humour and drama.

Cue the Berlin Philharmonic and Barbirolli in Bruckner. One of the things that let this performance of the Seventh Symphony down is the playing of the Hallé. In Berlin the massed strings are a joy, there is a blazing conviction to the playing, and Barbirolli’s control and concentration is total. In comparison the Hallé sounds imprecise and lightweight, and in all three symphonies (7-9) from Berlin the slow movements are more spacious and the scherzos have enormous bite and attack. So one can only hope that Testament, say, can acquire the RIAS Berlin tapes of these great performances – until this happens I will stick with my ‘pirates’.

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