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BARBIROLLI conducts SHOSTAKOVICH & RICHARD STRAUSS

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This broadcast concert by Sir John Barbirolli and the Hallé Orchestra from January 1963 paired works by Richard Strauss and Shostakovich, and from which our recordings are taken, is an exceptional one. Certainly, in so far as Barbirolli’s concert repertoire is concerned, this programme was notable for being the first occasion when he conducted Shostakovich’s mighty Fifth Symphony.

Of the two purely orchestral works making up this broadcast concert it was the earlier composition, Richard Strauss’s tone poem Tod und Verklärung which began the programme. Although the subject-matter of the work (depicting the death of an artist) may appear to some as rather meretricious, in a dramatically powerful and committed account – such as Barbirolli undoubtedly secured from the Hallé on this occasion – the music can be both emotionally quite moving and structurally completely satisfying. On hearing Barbirolli’s masterly account, one could be forgiven for thinking he had conducted this work many times throughout his life. This occasion was not the first time Sir John had essayed the work, but it had not appeared in his programmes for quite a few years; yet again, he delivered a performance that went to the very heart of the work, his fellow-musicians in his Hallé Orchestra responding with full-hearted and committed artistry.

In January 1963, a quarter of a century after that remarkable premiere of Shostakovich’s Fifth, and in defiance of the work’s detractors, Barbirolli secured a demonstrably excellent performance, free from any exaggeration. Barbirolli’s performance is so superlatively good that one’s attention is held throughout, especially in the slow movement, which contains some very beautiful music. One must also mention the inherent warmth of the Hallé Orchestra’s corporate sound: theirs is no transcontinental brilliance, with hard-cutting brass and massive string strength – such qualities are impressive in themselves, and suit certain schools of composition admirably – but as we may hear from this recording, the result in the Hallé’s case is an almost tangible, if difficult to describe, sense of inner cohesion, from which Barbirolli draws the finest shades of interpretation – ranging from great power and warmth to gossamer delicacy.

Here is a further example of the artistic truth of Barbirolli’s interpretative genius, and we must thank the Barbirolli Society who have rescued and made available this great performance for later generations.

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BARBIROLLI conducts ELGAR, MOERAN, DELIUS & ELGAR

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Sea Pictures was performed more often by Sir John Barbirolli than by almost any other British conductor, his singers being Kathleen Ferrier, Norma Proctor, Constance Shacklock, Janet Baker and Kerstin Meyer – the performance with Meyer being part of the penultimate concert he ever conducted, at the King’s Lynn Festival in 1970.

Sea Pictures remains a very difficult work for the soloist: the range required is exceptional. In addition, Elgar’s word-setting in that final song (The Swimmer) is highly demanding, with very few pauses for breathing-space. Not all contraltos feel able to tackle this remarkable masterpiece, but Constance Shacklock, truly, one of the finest contraltos – along with her near-contemporary, Kathleen Ferrier – England ever produced, has more than the full measure of the composer’s demands, and she is supported to the hilt by Barbirolli, whose atmospheric tempo-setting for each song is exceptional. This performance is a 1958 broadcast from the Royal Albert Hall.

E. J. Moeran’s Serenade has a curious interest of its own, in that the original 8-movement version of the Serenade was premiered in 1948, but on publication two movements (Intermezzo and Forlane) were withdrawn – for reasons which are not entirely clear. In this very rare live performance from the 1952 Cheltenham Festival, Barbirolli restores the Intermezzo which reinforces the natural musical language of the composer, perhaps owing something to the folk-based stylisation of Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite of 1926. Moeran’s Serenade, however, is no mere reflection of Warlock’s piece, but an individual work of great inherent beauty. Judging by the care and empathy with which Barbirolli invests the work, it clearly had great appeal for the conductor and his orchestra.

The other works here are Delius’s A Song of Summer (a 1945 broadcast) and the Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis by Vaughan Williams in a performance from the Grieghallen in Bergen in 1963.

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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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BARBIROLLI conducts BRUCKNER

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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.

BARBIROLLI conducts DVORÁK, WEBER & ROSSINI

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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.

JOHN BARBIROLLI CHAMBER 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.

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Barbirolli conducts Handel’s ‘Messiah’

BARBIROLLI conducts HANDEL’S ‘MESSIAH’

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.