Tchaikovsky – Barbirolli

0 of 5 stars

Piano Concerto No.1 in B flat minor
Francesca da Rimini
Romeo and Juliet

John Ogdon (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Sir John Barbirolli

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: January 2001
Duration: 76’40"

Forever to be associated with his beloved Halle Orchestra, Barbirolli’s EMI discography includes several recordings with the Philharmonia – Verdi’s Requiem and Otello, Elgar’s First Symphony and Mahler’s Fifth and Sixth.

It was after sessions for Mahler 5 had been completed that producer Ronald Kinloch Anderson (no relation) suggested to ‘JB’ that the remaining time might be used for Romeo and Juliet. So on 19 July 1969 in Watford Town Hall, Barbirolli and the (New) Philharmonia began work on a recording that was to remain incomplete. Session time over, it didn’t prove possible to find an available day when orchestra, conductor and location were mutually available. Barbirolli died on 29 July 1970 (while rehearsing the Philharmonia incidentally) other recordings completed in the meantime – but not this Romeo. As a torso it works well enough, the cut-off is just before the coda; as a performance it’s a little careful, emotionally cooler than one might expect from JB, but full of insights, atmosphere and characteristic yearning phrases. Had another session been found, then some details would have been tidied (‘patched’ in the trade), but we have what we have, and Barbirolli’s many fans will be delighted with this memento. Mike Dutton has retained Barbirolli’s ‘thank you’ to the orchestra on a separate track.

The other items are complete! Prior to this audition, I’d not found much in John Ogdon’s 1962 B flat minor. Aided by Dutton’s clean-as-a-whistle transfer, which reports a natural balance, rich-toned piano and superbly detailed orchestra, I now think this an absolute winner. Though one cavil on the sound is that occasionally certain frequencies and quiet dynamics respond less well to noise-reduction: for example at the beginning of the concerto’s second movement the strings (from 0’45”) are slightly husky and the preceding flute solo has a touch of flutter. I could add the cellos sound somewhat processed from 3’51”, but you may not notice or mind (some people don’t seem to) although I would have traded more hiss for tonal faithfulness. Nevertheless this is a wonderful rendition, one that finds Ogdon virtuosic without barnstorming and wonderfully delicate in quieter lyrical passages, which glitter alluringly. There is a generous sweep to this reading, often thrilling but always musical, with Barbirolli an imaginative and accommodating accompanist, the Philharmonia providing some superb solos.

Barbirolli’s 1969 Francesca is one of the great recordings of this work – ardent, impulsive and powerful; also sumptuous and glowing in the central section, memorably introduced by a suggestive clarinet solo, Bernard Walton presumably. For all the emotion and tingle that JB unleashes here, this Francesca also documents how carefully he prepared his scores – you don’t often hear the quiet cymbals at all, let alone so clearly differentiated, between 4’30”-4’38”.

Leaving aside my sensitivity to the occasional degradation to the sound, I welcome this CD, which is full of outstanding music-making – a marvellous concerto and Francesca, and a tantalising Romeo, a behind the scenes aural glimpse of an unfinished recording full of promise

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