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Sir John Barbirolli - New York Concerts 1962
Darius MILHAUD (1892-1974)
Ouverture philharmonique [9:31]
Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)
Intermezzo from Fennimore and Gerda [4:51]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No 4 in G major, Op. 58 [33:50]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No 2 in D major, Op. 73 [39:33]
Josef HAYDN (1732-1809)
Cello Concerto in D major, Op. 101 [26:56]
Gina Bachauer (piano); Aldo Parisot (cello)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli
rec. live, 30 November 1962; 9 December 1962 (Haydn), Philharmonic Hall, New York. ADD
BARBIROLLI SOCIETY SJB 1067-68 [48:12 + 66:29]

John Barbirolli, as he then was, was permanent conductor of what was then the Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra of New York from 1937 to 1943. I hope that the misplaced notion that he then scuttled back to the UK, a failure in New York, to conduct a provincial orchestra in Manchester was long ago debunked for good. However, he did not return to conduct the New York orchestra until 1959, when he was warmly welcomed back. Performances from those 1959 concerts were issued on CD a little while ago by the WHRA label and that set is well worth hearing (review). Thereafter, Sir John made a number of further visits to New York, his last being in 1968.
 
This set contains one full concert from his 1962 visit. In many ways it was a trademark JB programme but there was a novelty in the shape of Milhaud’s Ouverture philharmonique. Barbirolli’s visit was part of the inauguration season of the NYPO’s new home, the Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center (later re-named the Avery Fisher Hall). The orchestra commissioned a number of new works for the season and Barbirolli was invited to lead the first performances of this Milhaud piece. What a shame it wasn’t more worthy of his talents. The score is busy, colourful and brash - and that’s about all one can say for it. To be fair, the close, rather up-front recording probably doesn’t help but despite JB and the NYPO playing it enthusiastically it’s an empty piece which I have no desire to experience again.
 
We’re on much more familiar Barbirolli terrain with the Intermezzo from Delius’s opera, Fennimore and Gerda. Sir John leads an affectionate and subtle performance of music to which he was ideally suited and along the way there’s some fine woodwind solo work to admire. Unfortunately, the quieter dynamics of the Delius betray the almost incessant bronchial contributions to the concert from the audience, something which the brash scoring of the Milhaud had obscured.
 
Coughing is also something of a distraction during the performance of the Beethoven concerto in which the soloist is Gina Bachauer (1913-1976). She had been one of Barbirolli’s soloists during his 1959 New York visit, playing the Brahms Second Piano Concerto though unfortunately that was one of the few omissions from the aforementioned WHRA set. This Beethoven performance is impressive. Barbirolli conducts the long orchestral passage at the start of the first movement very well, investing the music with fine strength and dynamism. Thereafter, and throughout the concerto, the orchestral contribution is on a very fine level, reminding us what a fine accompanist JB was. Bachauer is a commanding and thoughtful soloist and I admired her account of this movement which culminates in a terrific account of the cadenza. Disappointingly the audience applauds as soon as the last note has sounded. In the opening pages of the slow movement the New York strings are very imposing, playing with strength and great depth of tone. In answer we hear gentle poetry from Bachauer. The finale is spirited; there’s excellent energy from both the pianist and the orchestra.
 
In his notes Robert Matthew-Walker points out that the Brahms Second Symphony was important to Barbirolli. He chose it for his first Royal Philharmonic Society concert, back in 1931, and it was also included in his first concert with the Hallé. Another significant occasion on which he programmed it was the concert that he gave in 1962 with the Berlin Philharmonic as part of the celebrations to mark the opening of Coventry Cathedral (Testament SBT1469). It was also the first piece that he recorded commercially with the NYPO, in 1940. I’ve always been a bit disappointed with the recording he made with the Vienna Philharmonic in the late 1960s, finding it a bit too autumnal. However, live performances are a rather different matter. There’s an excellent account from 1959 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (SJB 1057-58) and this New York reading is equally good.
 
In the first movement Barbirolli achieves a warm lyrical flow yet there’s no lack of strength and purpose in the reading. Sadly, like many other conductors, he doesn’t take the exposition repeat. At the start of the second movement he gets the New Yorkers to dig really deep and throughout the movement the strings are particularly ardent in their response. Sir John, no mean cellist himself, clearly relishes the cello line at several points in what is a deeply felt, even passionate reading. The finale is well done: the high spirits in Brahms’s music are well brought out yet the performance is expertly controlled too. This extrovert movement makes a joyful conclusion to the programme and it’s no surprise, though somewhat irritating, that the ovation starts during the last chord.
 
As a bonus to the complete concert we have a performance of Haydn’s D major Cello Concerto. This was the opening work on another programme that Barbirolli conducted during this visit - the rest of the programme was given over to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, a magnificent reading that has been issued on the NYPO’s absorbing but expensive boxed set, The Mahler Broadcasts, 1948-82 (review). For the concerto Barbirolli was joined by the Brazilian cellist, Aldo Parisot (b. 1921). I may be wrong but it seemed to me that after the orchestra introduction, nicely shaped by Barbirolli, Parisot took a couple of minutes to get fully into his stride. Thereafter, however, all is well and he gives a genial enjoyable performance. In the slow movement, an eloquent song for the soloist, his well-projected tone gives much pleasure and he and Barbirolli revel in the infectious high spirits of the finale. As in the Beethoven, one senses a good rapport between soloist and podium.
 
So, here we have a set of very good performances in which we hear Barbirolli happily reunited with his old orchestra. Most of the pieces are not new to the conductor’s discography but they are very valuable since they show how inspiring he could be in concert and also because they show him working to excellent effect with an orchestra with which he was not as familiar as his beloved Hallé. I don’t know what the sources were for these recordings. As I indicated earlier the sound is rather close and I found I had to lower the volume control a little to get best results. Nonetheless, it seems to me that Paul Baily has done a good job with the re-mastering and, despite being over fifty years old, these recordings have come up well.
 
This set nicely complements the WHRA set of Sir John’s 1959 concerts and it will be self-recommending to Barbirolli devotees. However, the general listener will find them rewarding listening too. One final thought. I wonder if a recording exists of Barbirolli’s last appearance with the NYPO in 1968 when he conducted the Vaughan Williams ‘London’ Symphony and the Seventh Symphony of Dvořák. I should like to hear that.

John Quinn

Masterwork Index: Beethoven piano concerto 4 ~~ Brahms symphony 2

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