C1509. SIR JOHN BARBIROLLI Cond. Boston S.O.: Symphony #2 in E-flat (Elgar). (Canada) St Laurent Studio YSL T-415, Live Performance, 7 Nov., 1964, Symphony Hall, Boston; Interview with Barbirolli, 1959. Transfers by Yves St Laurent.
“I can still recall the shock I felt when, at the age of 22, I heard this performance on a Boston Symphony Orchestra radio broadcast. I was familiar with the ‘Enigma Variations’ but had no knowledge of Elgar’s two symphonies. I sat through the Second Symphony transfixed, went on to explore both symphonies, and have loved them ever since. This performance has been issued before (on Music & Arts), but St. Laurent Studio’s release gives it renewed currency, and the sound is fuller and cleaner than before.
I haven’t listened to Barbirolli’s 1964 performance for many years, and coming to it afresh, I wondered whether my affectionate memories were caused more by the dramatic impact it had on me than by its lasting musical qualities. After all, Barbirolli made two recordings of the work under studio conditions with an orchestra far more familiar with him than Boston. But in fact, rehearing the performance now only sharpens my feeling that there is something very special happening.
First, the BSO is a finer orchestra than Barbirolli’s Hallé Orchestra was in either 1954 or 1964 when he made his two EMI recordings of the work. The BSO may have had to learn the music for this Symphony Hall concert, but learn it they did. The refinement of the playing, the glow of the string sound, and the concentration of the players all make this a reading with great impact. Barbirolli’s tempi are on the slow side (at 57:55 a full ten minutes slower than Elgar’s electrical recording, and longer than with most other conductors), but the line never sags. The Larghetto is a thing of hushed beauty, drawing the listener into the music. The rhythms are particularly taut in the third movement, which has more life and sparkle here than on the conductor’s stereo EMI recording from the same year.
The grandeur of this piece, especially in the outer movements, can spill over into excessive weightiness or self-importance. Finding the right balance so that the music’s nobility is not slighted but at the same time maintaining forward momentum is tricky. For me, Barbirolli manages that better than most other conductors, and hearing him lead one of the world’s greatest orchestras is unforgettable.
The Interview is of minimal interest, containing no great musical insights, though it is a nice bonus. St. Laurent, as usual, provides superb audio quality but no program notes. Notes are not necessary when a performance speaks for itself on such an exalted level. The label is available at Norbeck, Peters & Ford.”
- Henry Fogel, FANFARE
“Barbirolli has been perceived as not much at all, really - just another one of the Philharmonic conductors, often overlooked today, who came between Toscanini and, in the late ’50s, Leonard Bernstein….‘They either adore me or I nauseate them’, Barbirolli said of his listeners, and it’s easy to hear why. Here was a conductor with a singular style, harking back to the days of the Romantics, late and later, whom he loved to perform. Details mattered to him, as did a sense of the whole, but he was never bothered by scrappiness or slips; what counted was the sound, the spirit of a composer, and he would stop at nothing to capture it. He was a depressive workaholic who stayed up late into the night marking up scores, learning them for months before rehearsing them for nine hours a day, tempers flaring. He was a brilliant cellist, and he could make his string sections sing like no one else, drawing out the longest of lines with the fullest of bows, swooping from note to note in defiance of all fashion. What he conducted, he conducted with heart….
His break came in 1927, covering for a Thomas Beecham concert with the London Symphony. One critic called it ‘astonishing’ but chided him for ‘sentimentalizing’, even ‘violating’, Elgar’s Second Symphony. It would become a familiar indictment, but an HMV record executive decided to sign him that night….word of his promise reached the [New York] Philharmonic’s boss, Arthur Judson, who thought for a while of offering Barbirolli a week or two of guest conducting. But with the Furtwängler debacle raw, Judson sent a surprising telegram in April 1936, offering a full third of the 1936-37 season to this lowly director of Glasgow’s Scottish Orchestra, overnight making him Toscanini’s presumed successor. Barbirolli was shocked; the British press was baffled, and not a little afraid. The stakes became clear as Barbirolli stepped ashore in America.
Reporters startled him, asking how it felt to follow Toscanini….Barbirolli was as awed as anybody. His father and grandfather had played with Toscanini, including in the orchestra in the 1887 premiere of Verdi’s OTELLO, which the great man remembered when they met. Barbirolli had attended Toscanini’s rehearsals and concerts in London for years, emerging spellbound and writing that the Italian conductor ‘radiates something very pure and noble’. But they were opposites in style. Toscanini’s conducting was lean, driven by rhythm; Barbirolli’s was lush, driven by lyricism. ‘I look for warmth and ‘cantabile’ and a working atmosphere where men play beyond the call of duty’, the younger man said.
When World War II was underway, Barbirolli was unwilling to take American citizenship to satisfy union rules, and was sick for his home country. He let his Philharmonic contract end with the 1941-42 season, remaining in the United States and making guest appearances the following year only because the wartime voyage across the Atlantic was so perilous. He would not come back to the Philharmonic until 1959.
Offers immediately came for Barbirolli’s services, first from the London Symphony and then the BBC, but he stayed dedicated to the Hallé, even as his dreadfully paid players often did not. He took on more guest conducting after 1958, and even a second post at the Houston Symphony between 1961 and 1967, but he would spend most of the rest of his life training and retraining the Manchester orchestra.
There’s a certain ‘what if’ quality about the final decades of Barbirolli’s career, then - one made all the more haunting by the success of some of his later recordings with other orchestras, which benefited from EMI technology that the Hallé rarely had access to on its mass-market labels….And then there is his Elgar, which has the authority of tradition: Barbirolli played under Elgar at the premiere of his Cello Concerto, and elsewhere. He helped Jacqueline du Pré make that concerto famous in a classic recording, but also brought conviction to works like the ‘Cockaigne Overture’ (recorded three times, with the love of a born Londoner), the ‘Introduction and Allegro’ (a trifle that Barbirolli turned into a masterpiece six times on record) and even the ‘Elegy’, short and sentimental.”
- David Allen, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 13 Aug., 2020
“Sir John Barbirolli's repertoire centered on the late Romantic era, and on British composers Elgar, Vaughan Williams, and Delius; he led the first performances of Vaughan Williams' Symphonies Nos.7 and 8; the composer also bestowed the nickname ‘Glorious John’ upon the conductor. Aside from the music of Britten, he showed little interest in music of modern tendencies; late in his career, though, he developed a particular affinity for Gustav Mahler. Barbirolli left a notable recorded legacy that extends well into the stereo LP era.”
- Joseph Stevenson, allmusic.com