Barbirolli was aged between 63 and 67 when he made these recordings and had only four more years to live after the latest sessions. He brought to his Elgar a lifetime of associations which included being amongst the earliest solo proponents of the Cello Concerto. He knew the composer and had his imprimatur as a result of conducting the Second Symphony in 1927. That these tapes were made in the 1960s when Elgar’s music still stood in the unwarrantedly mired reputation of imperial bombast is all the more remarkable.
While this bargain set is presented with the typically spartan minimalism of this well loved series you are not short-changed on quality. The recordings are excellent 1960s EMI vintage and the rewardingly detailedRead more essay is by Lyndon Jenkins. The Introduction and Allegro and Serenade are from the illustrious Sinfonia of London sessions originally issued on ASD 521; vinyl that seemed destined to remain forever in the catalog and at full price. This is their first ever appearance at bargain price and they add decisively to the attractions of this set. Rangy, poignant and full-blooded playing is yours for the taking in the Introduction and Allegro. There’s a wondrous analogue depth to the recording which captures the throaty attack of the massed strings. Incredibly this was Barbirolli’s sixth and final recording of the work. Isn’t this the recording exhilaratingly used by Ken Russell in his Elgar film: the final titles with the camera mounted in a car accelerating up the hill roads?
Babrirolli’s reading of the First Symphony sometimes feels as if it has lead weights attached, at least in the first movement. It would be an eccentric sole representative but it is of the type that easily engenders enormous affection. It has a special plangency and lustre greatly assisted by the harp’s underpinning, captured even in moments of notable climax. No surprises there as EMI’s team proved a decade later with the harp figuration refulgently heard in Birmingham for the Walton-Frémaux coronation marches. The Second Symphony has the same virtues and faults. Barbirolli relishes every moment – and there is pleasure in that for the listener too. This lacks the headstrong potency of the Solti/LPO Decca which remains both watershed and reference disc as much as Barbirolli does for the Introduction and Allegro. Once again however the recording proclaims its high calling in capturing the violins’ ‘fugitive gleam’ for example in the second movement at 2:20 and also the assertive grandiloquent bloom of the horns. The strolling legato of the finale is lovingly paced and as well judged as the pregnant gait Barbirolli mints for the opening of the First Symphony. The stereo separation and other spatial qualities excitingly enhance the bold and noble brass-string dialogues from 4:10 onwards in the finale. The climax with that swaying asymmetrical syncopation at 8:50-8:53 still has the power to get you on your feet.
Barbirolli’s Falstaff has the impetuous qualities of its subject, dissolute, quixotic, rash (quite a lot of that), given to humour, poetry, affectionate lechery and self-pity. This is a reading as full of unruly life as Robert Nye’s portrayal of Falstaff or in Orson Welles film The Chimes at Midnight. The conductor, himself a cockney, knew and loved Elgar’s London as reflected in Cockaigne and delivers an impetuous and loving reading which in this case does not dawdle (2:12). That shiver of youthful panache can also be felt in the early Froissart overture – presumably its first recording since the composer’s own. As with Falstaff the recording of Enigma is generously tracked so that you can find your way around with ease. While this does not have the momentum of the Beecham version (BMG-Sony) – a personal favourite – it is grand and expansive and most artistically recorded. The marches are crackingly done and Nos. 2 and 4 stand out in this company for their gruffly spick and span rigour. That said I still rate Norman Del Mar’s recording with the RPO very highly indeed for its vivid character (DG-Universal).
The final disc of the five is an exact copy of another well-loved EMI LP (ASD 655) with a phenomenally long life at full price in the EMI catalogue. Janet Baker, caught in her early prime, is matchless in the Sea Pictures making, with her sincerity and naturally pellucid enunciation, a masterful impression of a work that is not out of Elgar’s top drawer. The Du Pré Cello Concerto is also most beautifully and passionately done and is generally reckoned a reference version. For me it lacks the sheer voltage overload of her irresistible version made live in 1970 with her husband conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra (BMG-Sony). Like all these recordings these two nevertheless stand as testimony to the velvet and satin translucency of the now-demolished Kingsway Hall; almost as much of a loss as Barbirolli himself.
Looking back we have now adjusted to the imbalances of the Elgar-Barbirolli heritage. There’s no Violin Concerto. Such a pity he did not record the concerto in the 1960s with the then still fiery Ida Haendel – rather than the honour falling to an elderly Boult when the flames were reduced to a glimmer (Testament). We also missed In the South (although there is a BBC Legends CD of a radio broadcast from circa 1970) a piece which should surely have suited Barbirolli’s Italian blood if the Introduction and Allegro is anything to go by. As it is, the crown for that work belongs with Constantin Silvestri and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra – another EMI treasure – a true Great Recording of the Century. I should add that I recently heard the Sinopoli version on DG and was impressed.
This box is a commanding bargain. Readings that are still exciting, eccentrically blighted and blessed, magnificent and suffused with radiant personality.
Sea Pictures, Op. 37by Sir Edward Elgar Performer:
Dame Janet Baker (Alto)
Sir John Barbirolli
London Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic Written: 1897-1899; England
Concerto for Cello in E minor, Op. 85by Sir Edward Elgar Performer:
Jacqueline Du Pré (Cello)
Sir John Barbirolli
London Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic Written: 1919; England
Average Customer Review: ( 1 Customer Review )
TERRIFIC RECORDINGJune 19, 2012By Stanley J. (Baltimore, MD)See All My Reviews"I've just made Elgar acquaintance. Am delighted with Barborolli's conducting and with the variety of Elgar's music presented in this album. Often play a selection from this collection now that I have an excellent presentation of what is for me - a "new" composer. Thank you ArkivMusic for making me aware of this wonderful and enchanting music."Report Abuse