This CD, which offers distinctly short measure in terms of playing
time, is somewhat perplexing. The main offering is, apparently, a
performance of the Brahms Second Symphony given in New York by the
NYPO under Barbirolli on 29 November 1962. Archipel offer no documentation
whatsoever to shed any light on this performance.
In his book on the NYPO John Canarina says that for the 1962/3 season
the NYPO stopped having their Thursday night concerts - the start
of a ‘run’ of performances - as preview events; the critics
attended the Thursday rather than Friday performances (The New
York Philharmonic from Bernstein to Maazel, p. 40). In 1962, 29
November fell on a Thursday so that would have been the first evening
on which this particular programme was given.
By chance, I reviewed
just a few months ago a two-disc set issued by the Barbirolli Society,
containing recordings of performances that JB gave during his visit
to New York in late 1962. That set includes a performance of this
symphony which was given with the NYPO on 30 November 1962. I was
somewhat surprised, when I retrieved that disc from my shelves, to
find some marked discrepancies in the playing times. I think it’s
worth listing the playing times for both discs.
Granted that no two performances are identical, it still seems strange that Barbirolli should apparently have given performances of the same work on consecutive nights with the same orchestra and in the same hall but with a time difference of some 3 minutes. About 30 seconds of the difference is explained by gaps between movements and applause, matters to which I’ll return shortly. In passing we may note that the Barbirolli Society has also issued (on SJB 1057-58) another American performance by JB, this time with the Boston Symphony in 1959, which plays for 40:26, including 16 seconds of applause at the end.
Comparing the two readings of the first movement what stands out is that in the Archipel performance there are several passages where the music is pushed forward in quite an excitable way: examples include the passage beginning around 1:40 and, later, the section from 5:08. In the Barbirolli Society recording, which for ease of reference I’ll refer to as SJB from now on, these and similar passages are held on a notably tighter rein. Indeed, the SJB performance is structurally tauter to a significant degree when compared with that offered by Archipel, which is much more volatile.
The opening of the Adagio ma non troppo is more expansive and also rather more accentuated on the SJB disc: I actually prefer the slightly faster Archipel tempo. I noted, however, that in the Archipel reading the music is pressed forward around 4:00 with greater urgency than is the case in the same passage on SJB; in that respect I prefer the approach in the SJB performance. The third movement follows without any perceptible break on the Archipel disc. That’s not how the music is supposed to go and the SJB disc has an interval of 13 seconds, during which one can hear the audience resettling; that’s clearly how it happened on the night. This lack of a break between movements appears to be down to Archipel’s editing. They more or less repeat this after the Allegretto giocoso, allowing a mere 3 seconds to elapse before the start of the finale. On SJB the gap is a much more realistic 14 seconds.
The respective accounts of the finale offer a similar experience to what is heard in the first movement. On Archipel the fast music is driven on very urgently indeed - even hectically. The first such example is the blazing tutti that begins at 0:27. Wherever the music is fast in this movement it sounds excitable rather than exciting in the hands of Archipel; the version on SJB is very much better controlled while retaining forward momentum and brio. In terms of pacing and structural grip the SJB account offers a much more satisfying experience. At the end the applause is crudely faded out after a couple of seconds by Archipel. The audience on SJB begin to clap during the last chord and their ovation is faded down much more acceptably after about 14 seconds.
The differences between the two, mainly in the outer movements, are significant. One appreciates that no two live performances are identical but it strains my credibility that Barbirolli could have offered two such strongly differing interpretations within the space of 24 hours. Has the Archipel performance been misattributed inadvertently, perhaps? Let’s put it this way: if the performance is, as stated, by Barbirolli on 29 November 1962 then he was on far better form the following evening.
As a ‘bonus’ track there’s a fairly full-blooded performance of the Academic Festival Overture conducted by Mitropoulos, presented in sound that is not desperately distinguished.
In the symphony the sound on the Archipel disc is not as good as that offered by SJB. Archipel’s sound is fairly bright and can seem a little fierce in loud passages. SJB’s transfer has a bit more body and depth and I prefer it. The Archipel disc lacks any documentation whatsoever other than a track-list. The SJB recording is part of a more fully documented two-disc set containing details of the complete programme that Barbirolli conducted on 30 November. It’s twice the price of the Archipel disc but I think this is a case where choice comes down to a question of price versus value. When there’s an altogether better and better-presented Barbirolli performance of this symphony in New York available on SJB I’m afraid it’s impossible for me to favour the Archipel disc.
Masterwork Index: Brahms symphony 2