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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756–1791)
Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K550 [25:05]
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Götterdämmerung: Dawn & Siegfried's Rhine Journey [14:44]; Siegfried's Funeral March [7:13]; Brünnhilde's Immolation Scene [18:57]
Anita Välkki (soprano)
Hallé Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli
rec. 21 January 1964, Town Hall, Manchester, UK
Previously unpublished
TESTAMENT SBT1508 [66:09]

Listening to this new release from Testament has been like being reacquainted with an old friend. It has stirred so many nostalgic memories of my early concert-going. It was in the early to mid sixties that my parents used to take me to Hallé concerts in the North-West of England, which in turn nurtured my initial interest in classical music.

This previously unpublished BBC pre-recording in mono was taped in Manchester’s Town Hall on 21 January 1964. The ever-popular and perennial Symphony No.40 in G minor by Mozart receives an affectionate reading, with Barbirolli and his players savouring the delights on offer. Tempi in all four movements seem just right and comfortable. The beautifully shaped opening phrases in the first movement are admirably set against a restless accompaniment evoking a melancholic undercurrent. The only bugbear for me is the omission of the exposition repeat which, to my ears, adversely affects the balance of the movement. Yet this first movement has more forward momentum and flow than Josef Krips’ disappointing recording with the Concertgebouw, which is over-cautious and held back. Barbirolli’s Andante is tender and eloquently crafted. Four minutes in he builds the music up into a noble climax, but doesn’t overdo it on the angst front. Following a nicely paced Minuetto, the finale is rhythmically alert and delivered with confidence and has plenty of stamina. Disappointingly, again the repeats are not done.

Although 1963 marked the 150th anniversary of the Wagner’s birth, the Hallé Orchestra delayed their celebrations until early 1964. At the time there was a shortage of Wagnerian sopranos to call upon, and Barbirolli was anxious to secure the services of the Finnish soprano Anita Välkki (1926-2011). At the time Välkki had established something of a name for herself in the role Brünnhilde, at Covent Garden, the New York Metropolitan and the Bayreuth Festival, as a formidable rival to Birgit Nilsson.

By coincidence, several weeks ago, I reviewed a ‘twofer’ from Testament (SBT 1507), which included the Götterdämmerung selection, this time from an all-Wagner programme given by the Concertgebouw Orchestra under Pierre Monteux. The concert, recorded live in Scheveningen on 1 July 1963 was also part of the 150th anniversary celebrations. Monteux’s soprano was Birgit Nilsson. It was interesting comparing the two recordings. Anita Välkki is outstanding, with commanding vocal resources, harnessing power and a dark timbre when called for. She invests the music with drama and ardour, and instinctively contours the vocal line. I can understand Barbirolli’s wish to have her on board. However, I did feel that Nilsson was more forwardly projected in the sound-picture, giving that performance a more visceral quality. For me, Monteux seems to secure that extra ounce of passion and fire from Wagner’s scores and, although the 1963 performance has the edge, it’s a close-run race.

For its age and provenance, the audio quality of this BBC recording is remarkably fine, and Testament’s excellent digital re-mastering brings the music vividly to life. Mike Ashman’s well-written liner contributions set the context, and include excerpts from insightful reviews of the Wagner items by J.H. Elliot (The Guardian) and Michael Kennedy (Daily Telegraph).

More than anything else, this recording reminds us how inspirational a conductor Sir John Barbirolli was.

Stephen Greenbank


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