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
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
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.
Masterwork Index: Beethoven
piano concerto 4