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Sir John Barbirolli
Symphony 83 "The Hen"; Johann Strauss II: Selection of pieces; Richard Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier - Suite; Lehar: Gold and Silver Waltz
Halle Orchestra (9 August 1969, Royal Albert Hall, London)
BBCL 4038-2 [76' 28"]

Sir Adrian Boult
Unfinished Symphony; Bizet: Jeux d'enfants - Suite; Ravel: Daphnis & Chloe - Suite 2  (30 July 1964, Royal Albert Hall);
Symphony 7* (8 March 1963, Royal Festival Hall, London)
Philharmonia Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra*
BBCL 4039-2 [73' 56"]

Two great conductors - and I won't compromise that assertion by inserting British as the third word. Such bracketing suggests isolation and poses questions such as "Is there a better German conductor, better Italian?" London-born Barbirolli had his Italian side, and Boult studied in Leipzig with Nikisch an influential presence.

Barbirolli's performances had an emotional glow, his feelings openly expressed - and his preparation of scores was more painstaking than is sometimes credited. Such care is evident in the wonderful Haydn symphony that opens this 1969 Prom (Viennese Night). "Barbirolli adored Haydn," says Michael Kennedy. So do I and I pity anyone who underestimates or denies Haydn's unbelievable musical invention and imagination - Barbirolli's Hen is vital and eloquent. His great affection is never to excess, the minuet's trio an inimitable example of JB's warmth and wit, grace notes endearingly nudged; the slow movement yields meltingly to the emotional gravitas Barbirolli invests in it. (I think I'd have liked Sir John had we met.) Barbirolli omits the first movement repeat (but not the Finale's) which he had observed in his 1949 HMV recording (now on DUTTON CDSJB 1003 Crotchet , with Symphonies 88 and 96, vivid readings well transferred). The earlier Hen shares interpretative characteristics but this concert rendition is a tad more heartfelt and articulate.

About the Strauss items I'm not so sure. Although Barbirolli was devoted to this joyous repertoire, there is something a little mannered about the phrasing, the emphasis, that Barbirolli produces; and rhythms lack the spontaneity that Viennese musicians instinctively possess. I regret the lack of internal repeats in the Emperor Waltz but smile at his initially half-speed Tritsch-Tratsch-Polka (something Celibidache might have engineered albeit working from different blueprints) which retards further and then lunges forward to a more conventional tempo (much to the amusement of the audience). JB isn't above allowing a few changes to these pieces (Gordon Jacob's work?) - thus Perpetuum Mobile ends loudly (to no great effect) instead of potentially playing forever. There are some sweet sounds in (another great conductor) Artur Rodzinski's version of the Rosenkavalier Suite. Barbirolli is an ardent, sensitive and swaying guide through this confection. I'm not sure how often I shall listen to Gold and Silver. This gem is bereft of its introduction and the Promers' crooning along to it isn't for everyday listening. Fortunately JB made commercial recordings of this music. His earlier ones are on Dutton (CDSJB 1010)  Crotchet while those made later have, I believe, so far eluded CD issue.

Boult wasn't one to insinuate celebrity into music. His approach was different (not better or worse) than Barbirolli's: let's be glad of both men. There's no lack of passion in Boult's conducting and one comes away from the symphonic music on his CD deeply satisfied. Boult oversees the music's structural considerations, illuminating instrumental dialogue and internal balance by having antiphonal violins. Thus the Sibelius emerges as an unbroken arc of musical achievement (with trumpets added for the final bars as Koussevitzky did) and the Ravel is distinguished by lovely woodwind playing (a Philharmonia hallmark) and radiant strings. Boult charts the sunrise with thrilling inevitability and doesn't miss the brass's `kiss' (as Daphnis and Chloe are reunited) at 4' 26" (Ansermet, but surprisingly not Monteux, is equally insightful here). I like Boult's flowing account of `Pantomime' enhanced by the poetic flute playing of, presumably, Gareth Morris; and I like too Boult's measured way with the closing `Danse generale'. In his notes, Rob Cowan suggests that this final section "has a slight whiff of the morning after". I know what he means but I think Boult's speed is perfect to feel the 2+3 division of five beats in the bar. There's no lack of excitement as Boult builds towards the final bars, and if the trumpets get lost just prior to these (compensated elsewhere by details not always heard) the ending is lustily abandoned.

Boult never recorded the Ravel or Sibelius (although he did tape the latter's Tone Poems very persuasively for Vanguard in the 'fifties, now on CD in the States) so this archive material is invaluable, especially so given the marvellous renditions. Neither is the Bizet in Boult's discography. He plays this delightful music with a straight bat but no lack of charm, while the `Unfinished' reflects what Rob Cowan cites as Boult's "directness… authority… and wisdom". Cowan also relates what I found a touching anecdote about a meeting he had with Boult. I too have a Boult anecdote. I wrote to him a few years before he died (in 1983 aged 93). Not only did Sir Adrian write back, he did so in his own hand giving me a full reply, starting his letter: "You appear not to be on the telephone or I would have rung you." I was indeed without a 'phone - quite how I would have reacted to "Boult here" I'm not sure.

I shall not belittle either conductor by giving marks. Both CDs enjoy good stereo sound, Boult's is a minute shorter than stated (the above timing is correct) and I prefer the order of Sibelius, Bizet, Schubert and Ravel for continuous (programmed) listening. If, on this occasion, the Barbirolli issue is a souvenir (with the Haydn considerably more than that), Boult's CD is an immensely important release.


Colin Anderson


Colin Anderson

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