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Schubert: Symphony No 4; Britten, Sibelius / Barbirolli, English, Baumann

Sibelius / Barbirolli
Release Date: 03/26/2013 
Label:  Ica Classics   Catalog #: 5096   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Franz SchubertBenjamin BrittenJean Sibelius
Performer:  Gerald EnglishHermann Baumann
Conductor:  Sir John Barbirolli
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Stereo 
In Stock: Usually ships in 24 hours.  

Notes and Editorial Reviews

SCHUBERT Symphony No. 4 in c. BRITTEN Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings. SIBELIUS Symphony No. 2 John Barbirolli, cond; WDR SO Cologne ICA 5096 (2 CDs: 98:32)

Barbirolli greatly admired the professionalism of post-World War II Germany’s many orchestras. (And as someone who had endlessly browbeaten and pleaded with the Manchester City Council for decent funds to support the Read more Hallé Orchestra, he no doubt appreciated the fact that they were heavily state-subscribed.) He appeared as a guest conductor there frequently in his later years, most notably in Berlin, where the Philharmonic, the critics, and the audiences expressed great enthusiasm upon each visit. But he was highly popular elsewhere in Germany as well, and gave his usual 120 percent on each occasion.

This album offers us a complete concert of February 7, 1969, in Cologne, with the then-Cologne RSO (now renamed the WDR SO of Cologne). It begins with a taut, driven account of the Schubert Fourth that paradoxically never loses sight of the classical goal of perfectly balanced, tonal beauty. Although Barbirolli was rightly criticized in his later years for lavishing so much attention on details of phrasing with his beloved Hallé that sometimes the forest was lost sight of for the trees, that’s definitely not the case here. The slow movement is notable: It is taken at a surprisingly “modern” fast clip, yet boasts such warm phrasing, dark textures, crisp accenting, and scrupulous attention to dynamics as to clearly signal its ancestry to the Eighth.

While the Schubert Fourth was recorded by Barbirolli with the New York Philharmonic in 1939, he never made a studio recording of Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings. This is the only time he was caught on tape in the work, though he performed it repeatedly in later years. Gerald English was often his choice of soloist, and a good one who, like his mentor, reveals a careful attention to the dynamics and phrasing. The top seems a bit tight at full voice here, but he doesn’t hold back despite that; and his enunciation is, as always, first rate. Hermann Baumann is the horn soloist, technically superb in the Hymn, better still in the colors he brings to the Nocturne. I can’t recall hearing a more haunting performance of “Blow, bugle: answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying,” or as powerfully dramatic a Dirge, despite having Peter Pears, Philip Langridge, and Ian Bostridge in my personal collection.

Finally, there’s a Sibelius Second. Barbirolli recorded it four times. As in his 1962 recording with the Royal Philharmonic, there’s a sense of disjointedness in the first movement. I find this works in the studio version as a valid interpretation, but not as well here. There are issues of balance and coherence in the orchestra during the early pages, and some occasionally rough playing from the brass. The rest is far better: The dark pizzicato strings, the fast but very flexible tempo, the care lavished on color and dynamics, all make this a volatile Andante . The brilliantly controlled, menacing scherzo finds a perfect foil in the rich expansiveness of its trio—and when Barbirolli reaches the finale, it’s as glorious and dramatically effective as Glorious John can get. Which is saying quite a lot. Karajan has nothing on this.

The tape for this concert has circulated on LP and through private collections for some time, but this is its first CD incarnation. The sound is good, rich in bass frequencies, if just a bit dull at the top. Balance is good, though the clarinets and oboes are occasionally a bit off-mike. If the short length of this album is a concern, weigh it against the power of the Schubert, and the expressive genius of the Britten. First movement of the Sibelius aside, this is a must for fans of Barbirolli, and a good purchase in any case. Recommended.

FANFARE: Barry Brenesal
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Works on This Recording

Symphony no 4 in C minor, D 417 "Tragic" by Franz Schubert
Conductor:  Sir John Barbirolli
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1816; Vienna, Austria 
Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, Op. 31 by Benjamin Britten
Performer:  Gerald English (Tenor), Hermann Baumann (French Horn)
Conductor:  Sir John Barbirolli
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1943; England 
Symphony no 2 in D major, Op. 43 by Jean Sibelius
Conductor:  Sir John Barbirolli
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1901-1902; Finland 

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