- Audio CD (March 26, 2013)
- Number of Discs: 2
- Label: International Classical Artist
- ASIN: B00B5UBFXA
- Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #652,707 in CDs & Vinyl (See Top 100 in CDs & Vinyl)
Legacy: Sir John Barbirolli
Sir John Barbirolli was one of the most versatile conductors of his generation, associated with composers and works of every era. These historic recordings, never before released, present works he previously had not recorded, - like the Britten Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings - or were under-recorded - like Schubert's Symphony No. 4.
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One online review called this Schubert reading "a guilty pleasure," presumably because it doesn't run like a jackrabbit or render the composer's poignant feelings into clipped Morese code. It's a glowing, intense performance that only the most HIP-pity could resist. One thinks of Beethoven throughout, as Schubert himself probably did, since his great model in the symphonic form was Beethoven. Among modern recordings, the only comparably Romantic one I can think of is Giulini's, a lovely reading with the Berlin Phil., also live, on Testament. Barbirolli is more tender and, if I may say so, humbler. It's wonderfully alive, a must-listen for anyone who loves this style of music-making.
The Britten Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings is a major score that Barbirolli, a major Britten conductor, somehow never recorded. The soloist is Gerald English, an associate of the composer's but unknown to me, and the horn soloist is the prominent German virtuoso Hermann Baumann. I'm not fond of his somewhat watery, mellifluous tone, or his tendency to under-dramatize compared with the great Barry Tuckwell on the composer's all but definitive Decca recording. Baumann seems not to grasp the score, playing his solos one note after the other, but there's no doubt that he has enough technique, and more.
It's unfortunate that the horn is close and loud, the tenor rather distant and at times faint. English models his interpretation on Peter Pears, for whom the work was written, and in that vein does an appealing, attractive job - still, it's hard to tell if his voice is smallish or just miked wrong. He can't really let out his voice for a powerful song like Nocturne, based on Tennyson's "The splendor falls on castle walls." But Barbirolli's touches are an interesting variation on the composer's approach and carry equal force and conviction. This is a work I know well, so my reservations aren't warnings, just hints at disappointment. On its own, this Serenade is sensitive and engrossing. I'd rather hear it again than Ian Bostridge's version with Simon Rattle.
In England Barbirolli was an adored Sibelius conductor. His account of the Second Sym., on Chesky with the Royal Phil., is considered a classic; another, with his own Halle Orch. on EMI, strikes me as scrappy, nearly a misfire. Here, one immediately notices that the Cologne strings are a bit thin - as is the recording in the upper registers - and that Barbirolli is singing along. But his phrasing is masterful, the whole reading full of involvement and character. For good or ill, Sibelius recordings around this time were dominated by the big-as-all-outdoors sonority one heard from Bernstein and Karajan (the latter's Sibelius Second is like holding up a mountain); theirs was a decided change from Beecham's more supple, singing approach.
It's good to hear the grandeur dialed down, as Barbirolli does. He gives the music breathing room and pauses to clearly divide one arching line from the next. In less expert hands, this would make the first movement sound chippy - even Szell is guilty of that - but Barbirolli carries us over a bridge that spans from first note to last. I used to think that his measured intensity ran the risk of loving the score to death, but he doesn't maunder or get lost along the way; his reading is very lucid. For many of us, the sibelius Second has almost worn out its welcome, as even a masterpiece can, but in the second movement Barbirolli finds an aching note of melancholy that is deeply moving, and the last two movements, which build to a show-stopping climax, actually mean something emotionally. In short, the woodwind soloists may be only good enough, but that doesn't hinder a great reading, another must-listen along with the Schubert.