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BARBIROLLI conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra

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These recordings are taken from concerts given in Buenos Aires during a concert tour with the Philharmonia Orchestra and include symphonies by Dvorak (8th) and Sibelius (2nd) coupled with performances of two works which Barbirolli never recorded in the studio, Richard Strauss’ Don Juan and Stravinsky’s Firebird suite.
As Robert Matthew –Walker writes, so we have two symphonies, by Dvořák and Sibelius, which were, one might say, staples of his repertoire, alongside two works which he much less-rarely programmed – played by an orchestra of international renown whose association with Barbirolli was not, at the time, considered to be particularly close. In such circumstances, one might have half-expected the performances of the less-familiar works to be no more than a little better than routine – or one might, from a less gifted or less experienced conductor than Barbirolli.
Yet, once again in this great musician’s career, his grasp of the evergreen Dvořák G major Symphony is total – a really vivid performance in fine style, perceptible through the rather dated broadcast sound, a reading which adheres pretty strictly to the score with refreshing effect, especially of the entrancing third movement. All-in-all, here is a vivid and sunlit performance of this exceptionally beautiful and vigorous symphony, as spacious and expressive as the music deserves.
Barbirolli’s reading of the Second Symphony of Sibelius is equally fine; a beautifully turned account of this still-exciting work, not lacking in fire and intensity when called for, but never over-done, and revealing the amazing originality of the work’s first movement in a reading so carefully wrought that one would have thought conductor and orchestra had been partners in this masterpiece for years.
In the less-frequently-encountered scores in Barbirolli’s repertoire, as we can hear all too clearly, the performances of the Strauss and Stravinsky works rank highly. Both accounts are exceptionally clear-cut, without ever sacrificing the warmth that – even in early Stravinsky – forms part of the pictorial narratives of each masterpiece.
Such is the range of expression in these concert performances that one can – at the distance of more than half-a-century – claim each one to be of a standard such as is rarely heard in live performances at any level today, the brilliance and sensitivity of the Philharmonia Orchestra readily apparent across the intervening decades. The audiences in South America must have been thrilled at the outcome of this visit by such distinguished musicians – as we can readily hear and acknowledge.

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Bruckner Symphony No. 8, Delius In a Summer Garden and Sibelius’ 5th Symphony. These recordings with the Hallé Orchestra are taken from the Free Trade Hall (Bruckner 8th) and a concert given in the Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway.
The most truly astonishing aspect of the recording of the Bruckner is that this performance was the first time in Barbirolli’s career that he had conducted the Symphony. Here, demonstrably, as Robert Matthew –Walker says in his notes accompanying this issue, we can experience his interpretative genius at its finest.

For too often, Delius’s music was criticised for its ‘rhapsodic’ utterance or ‘shapeless’ form – but what, in fact, do those critical terms mean? As with all great original composers, Delius’s music ‘shapes’ itself, and although such innovations as his works contain demand much in the way of interpretative understanding, once that has been mastered by a sympathetic conductor, the result can indeed be revelatory.
Such, one may assert, is the case here. Barbirolli’s shaping of the phrases and paragraphs which go to make up this wonderful orchestral essay is as masterly as his control of the far larger structures in Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony; the continuous ‘thread’ the music possesses is never broken, with the attentive listener carried by Delius’s unique sound-world to the music’s full understanding.
Such similarities may also be discerned in Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony: a structure so completely original in twentieth-century orchestral music as to continue to astonish the listener – but only when the performance demonstrates those qualities fully.
In this performance, Barbirolli achieves a wondrous combination of life and cogency such as one rarely hears.


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Every conductor, at some time in their career, will be called upon to accompany a soloist in a concerto – but relatively few conductors have been soloists themselves in public performances, thereby experiencing the partnership, so to speak, from the ‘other side’. Barbirolli had done so, of course, from his earliest years as a professional, which undoubtedly gave his conducting of a concerto a special sense of unity.

On this release under his baton we can hear for ourselves Barbirolli’s innate empathy with his soloists – and whilst, in view of our opening remarks, it may be felt the Dvořák Concerto might exhibit that empathy to a greater degree than Carl-Maria von Weber’s Konzertstück for piano and orchestra, there are other factors which – in this particular instance – demonstrate Barbirolli’s genius in orchestral accompaniment.

The soloist in the Weber, from the 1958 Proms, is Rayson Whalley who was a fine musician, someone who – as with other orchestras – would play a solo concerto part at rehearsal if the engaged soloist was absent, and would take the piano part in those scores which called for a piano in the orchestra. Such musicians were sometimes referred to as the ‘house pianist’, but any assumption that in Whalley’s case he was in any way less than top-notch is soon disabused on hearing such a fine account of a (nowadays) unjustly neglected masterpiece.

Although many music-lovers will be familiar with the Dvořák concerto, this particular performance – caught in an off-air BBC television sound recording from 1963 – not only has the compelling recreative totality of a ‘live’ performance, but also exhibits a number of interpretative characteristics which reveal a strongly expressive yet classical account of natural distinction, with Tortelier’s superb technique combined with Barbirolli’s unfailing sense of the music’s structure, and with much of the quality of the soloist’s playing obviously communicating itself, through Barbirolli’s direction, to the orchestra.


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John Barbirolli’s professional career began at a cellist’s desk in an orchestra and in a string quartet. Although he was a good enough cellist to give one of the early performances of the Elgar concerto (in the first performance of which in 1919 he played in the orchestra) he always intended that the conductor’s rostrum should be his ultimate destination.

This CD features recordings of the John Barbirolli Chamber Orchestra made for HMV in the Small Queen’s Hall, London between 1928 and 1929.

It is remarkable that John Barbirolli, a young and comparatively unknown conductor, should have recorded Elgar’s ‘Introduction and Allegro’ within two years but it is a salutary reminder that it needed a string-player-conductor to perceive its greatness. His first recording was for NGS and then followed the HMV recording in 1929. Barbirolli himself said that Elgar spoke to him about the recording and said: ‘I’d no idea it was such a big piece’. It sounds it, too, in the HMV performance reproduced here.

Barbirolli arranged a ‘Suite for Strings’ from music by Purcell for his own chamber orchestra to play – on this disc we hear the Hornpipe taken from the incidental music for ‘The Married Beau’. Also included is the rarely heard suite The Merchant of Venice by Frederick Rosse.

Haydn’s Symphony No.104 ‘London’ played an important part in Barbirolli’s career, for when in 1927 the the London Symphony Orchestra invited their former cellist to take the indisposed Beecham’s place, he substituted it for the Mozart symphony that Beecham had planned.

COVER SJB1086-87 Messiah

Barbirolli conducts Handel’s ‘Messiah’



The Barbirolli Society’s latest release is a 2-CD set of Handel’s Messiah with soloists Elizabeth Harwood, Marjorie Thomas, Gerald English and Kim Borg, and with the Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus and the Hallé Orchestra and Choir. The performance was recorded for the BBC Home Service on 4 December 1964 in the King’s Hall, Bell Vue, Manchester and broadcast on 23 December 1964.

For Barbirolli Handel’s Messiah was more than a great work of art: for him, as we may hear throughout this performance, the oratorio reveals aspects of the European human condition of universal significance. As yet another example of Barbirolli’s interpretative genius, the work once more transcends time and place, as this great musician uncovers the inner spirituality through his recreation of the music, his inspiring conviction and understanding conveyed through his musicians’ performance after more than half a century.

This Limited Edition 2-CD set is released by arrangement with BBC Worldwide Limited.

Cover SJB1084-85 Nielsen Mahler

Barbirolli conducts Nielsen and Mahler

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This Barbirolli Society release is a 2-CD set of the complete concert given in the Free Trade Hall, Manchester on 20 October 1960, with the combined forces of the Hallé and BBC Northern Symphony Orchestras. The concert consisted of Nielsen’s Symphony No.5 and Mahler’s Symphony No.7.

Michael Kennedy, writing in 2000, stated: ‘Performances of the (Mahler) Seventh were much rarer then than they are today, and Mahlerian scholars and enthusiasts flocked to Manchester for the event, among them Deryck Cooke who was profoundly impressed by Sir John’s ability to make the work’s structure cohere. This was an especially significant comment coming from Cooke, who harboured many doubts about the symphony and confessed to finding it most ‘problematical’. ’

By 1960, Nielsen’s British champion in print, Robert Simpson, had been a senior member of the BBC for nine years, and it is not difficult to recognise his involvement in the planning of this concert. In 1954, Simpson wrote of Mahler’s Seventh: ‘Designed on a vast scale, with a scheme of ‘progressive tonality’…it consists of two very large movements flanking three less large ones in its centre. In the very middle is a rather grim and ghostly scherzo and on either side of it are two movements called Nachtmusik; the first of these (the second movement of the Symphony) is a kind of twilit march and the other (the fourth movement) is a greatly protracted nocturnal serenade. The first movement is gigantic in size and tragic in import and the finale is brilliant, sometimes contrapuntal and often brassy, like a more tense, nervous version of Die Meistersinger.’

Later that same year (1954), Simpson was to write of Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony as being the composer’s ‘greatest achievement, and it is difficult to think of a modern symphony which contains such an immense range of feeling, such enormous power or such constructional strength.’ Without any question, therefore, this programme would have carried its great significance, both musical and temporal, to the many listeners in Britain and on the Continent – an importance not lost on The Times or on the other leading British newspapers of the day. The weight thus placed on Sir John Barbirolli’s shoulders by such inspired programming was very great, and it is a measure of his insightful genius as an interpreter of these two very different composers that he was to produce such magnificent interpretations of these very different symphonies, such as – more than half a century later and thanks to further evolved technology – we can experience for ourselves today.

COVER SJB1083 Prague 1958

Barbirolli – Prague Spring Festival, 1958

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In 1958 Sir John Barbirolli and the Hallé had been invited to the Prague Spring Festival and their first Prague concert, in the acoustically admirable Smetana Hall given on 24 May, was of Berlioz’s Roman Carnival overture, Elgar’s Enigma Variations and Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony. The following evening (the performances on this CD) the programme opened with a Weber’s Oberon overture followed by Vaughan Williams’s Eighth Symphony and the concert concluded with Brahms’s First Symphony.

It is a source of considerable interest and gratitude that Czech Radio has retained the original tapes of the Weber and Brahms works, and has kindly made them available for release by the Barbirolli Society – the interest being that this is a very rare surviving performance of Brahms’s C minor Symphony under Barbirolli’s baton – for there are only two other known recordings (either live or commercially taped) of the Symphony conducted by him. Whatever the combination of circumstances which led to this dearth of surviving interpretations, we should be thankful to the Czech engineers for capturing such a musically rare event.

The performances are remarkable for their intensity and structural cohesion, and, in the Weber overture, for the character and delicacy of the individual playing where called for. The spontaneous and enthusiastic ovation following each work here by the Czech audience demonstrated the truth of the comment by an observer at the time, who noted that at the conclusion of the Symphony, ‘Barbirolli had the audience eating out of the palm of his hand’.

The recordings are from the archives of Czech Radio and are published here for the first time.

COVER SJB1082 Czech PO

Barbirolli conducts the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra

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For Barbirolli, the 1950s and 60s became a golden age for his art and the gramophone, and his reputation became more widespread than those famous recordings of his from the 1930s with the London Philharmonic, London Symphony, and New York Philharmonic Orchestras which originallly established his name on disc. Having first visited the Prague Spring Festival in 1958 with the Hallé, making a considerable impact in the then communist country of Czechoslovakia (a concert from that visit is available on the Barbirolli Society label SJB 1083) a return engagement to Prague for Barbirolli became an urgent necessity – for him alone if necessary.

And so, almost two years later to the day, we can hear part of the programme he gave with the Czech Philharmonic in May 1960, comprising his own Elizabethan Suite and Mahler’s First Symphony. The Mahler is a performance of rare quality, the players responding to this late 19th-century evocation of their Bohemian provenance with demonstrable love and affection, keen to impress their distinguished conductor with their dedication to the recreation of this masterpiece. The remaining work in the programme was a Concerto for Two Pianos by Jan Dussek (released on CD by Supraphon) in which the soloists were František Maxián and Jan Panenka. For his second visit, Barbirolli spent more than a week in Prague, and nine days before conducting the concert recorded here, he was interviewed on Czech Radio (included as a bonus track on this CD), in which conversation he discussed his impressions of the Prague Spring Festival, the great Czech conductor Václav Talich (who was to die less than a year later) and the city itself.

The recordings are from the archives of Czech Radio and are published here for the first time.

COVER SJB1081 Rubbra

Barbiroilli conducts Rubbra

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In many ways, Rubbra’s Fifth Symphony may be considered his most immediately attractive. It was premiered on 26 January, 1949 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sir Adrian Boult at the Royal Albert Hall, but it was Sir John Barbirolli and the Hallé Orchestra’s recording of the work under the auspices of the British Council – the first recording of any Symphony by Rubbra – which had a notable impact and substantially reinforced the composer’s name internationally. The recording was made in December 1950 at EMI’s No 1 Studio Abbey Road, London, with Rubbra present. Early commentators were at one in their admiration of Rubbra’s Fifth Symphony, The Times critic in particular singling out the impression that the symphony ‘accords with the famous definition that music is thinking in sound without concepts’, continuing that the ‘slow movement has a grave beauty that is impressive.’ Many also naturally referred to the solo horn tune which opens the Scherzo, noting its genuine instantaneous memorability. For such a work, no finer choice of interpreter could have been chosen than Barbirolli: the composer himself was forever fulsome in his praise of Barbirolli, and on more than one occasion said of his deep appreciation for what the conductor and his orchestra had revealed.

The Sixth Symphony was the result of a commission from the Royal Philharmonic Society, and Barbirolli’s was clearly (if not quite the work’s second performance) one of the earliest accounts the Symphony had received up to that time. This CD includes a previously unpublished ‘live’ recording from the 1956 Cheltenham Festival – taken from Rubbra’s own private collection. What is quite clear, almost 60 years later, are the depth and concentrated power of Barbirolli’s reading of this great work. Here is music that has the compelling inner drive and utterly convincing grasp of the conductor’s perception – knowing where each phrase is going, and why – the result is a reading such as can never have been exceeded by those conductors drawn to this profound symphony. Barbirolli’s sense of organic growth is astonishingly convincing, his perception and understanding of this music being a practical demonstration of what Harold Truscott described as prerequisites for musicians approaching Rubbra’s music – ‘application and thought’ – here demonstrated by Barbirolli and his orchestra at the height of their powers.

Symphony No.6, Op.80
Hallé Orchestra conducted by Sir John Barbirolli
Cheltenham Festival, 17 July 1956 previously unpublished recording

Loth to depart
(Improvisations on Virginal Pieces by Giles Farnaby, Op.50, No.4)
Hallé Orchestra conducted by Sir John Barbirolli
No.1 Studio, Abbey Road, London, 15 December 1950

Symphony No.5 in B flat, Op.63
Hallé Orchestra conducted by Sir John Barbirolli
No.1 Studio, Abbey Road, London, 14 & 15 December 1950

COVER SJB1078-79 Mahler

Barbirolli conducts Mahler & Stravinsky

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By the time of his death, Sir John Barbirolli had conducted all the Mahler symphonies except the Eighth “Symphony of a Thousand”, and the reconstructed Tenth. He conducted the two completed movements of the Tenth (the Adagio and Purgatorio). Recordings are available for Nos.1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 9.He conducted the Adagietto of the Fifth on several occasions, the first of these being in New York. He performed the song-cycle Kindertotenlieder, with Elena Gerhardt at the Royal Philharmonic Society concert on 29 January 1931. He conducted it in Manchester in 1946 and several times later with Kathleen Ferrier (see the Barbirolli Society release SJB 1080).

In 1959 he decided to prepare the Ninth Symphony and the acclaim for his interpretation inaugurated 16 years of almost an obsession with Mahler. He repeated the Ninth in the next Hallé season and programmed it in Edinburgh, Sheffield, Leeds, Houston, Chicago and elsewhere. He conducted the Second in La Scala, Milan, for he was determined to spread the gospel of Mahler worldwide. In January 1963 he conducted the Ninth in Berlin, where Mahler’s music was little known. In 1965 he conducted the Second three times in Berlin with Janet Baker.

We are fortunate that this thrilling performance of the Resurrection Symphony, recorded on 12 March 1959 in the Free Trade Hall, with Victoria Elliot and Eugenia Zareska as soloists and the Hallé Orchestra and Choir, is now available for the first time.

Probably few people think of Barbirolli as a Stravinsky interpreter, but he regularly programmed a handful of works and did them impressively. The rhythms and colours of the Firebird and Petrushka ballets evoked some exciting performances. He gave excellent accounts of the Symphony in Three Movements and the more classic Symphony in C. The Symphony of Psalms was a favourite too if there was enough rehearsal time to do justice to the great work. It obviously had been well prepared for performance on the evidence of this disc taken from a broadcast from the Edinburgh Festival on 28 August 1957. The choir had to travel overnight from Manchester and arrived at Prince’s Street Station at 5am on a miserable cold and wet morning. Their spirits lifted when they saw the familiar figure, with his large hat and carrying his stick, waiting to greet them. He gives the music a reverential quality but does not indulge in any exaggerated religiosity. Typically, he probes the score for every ounce of lyricism without compromising the music’s baroque style.

Previously unpublished recordings