BRAHMS Symphony No. 2 • John Barbirolli, cond; Berlin PO • TESTAMENT 1469 (43:37) Live: Coventry 6/6/1962
This disc preserves an exceptional event of enormous historic symbolism: the visit of Germany’s leading orchestra to the newly rebuilt Coventry Cathedral, which had been reconsecrated only a month before (with the premiere of Britten’s War Requiem), 20 years after the old cathedral’s destruction in German bombing raids on the city. Throughout the 1960sRead more Barbirolli enjoyed a special relationship with the Berlin Philharmonic, and the intensity of the occasion is palpable. With no filler, the disc obviously offers short measure, but the rest of the concert (Haydn and Vaughan Williams) has apparently not survived, and Testament evidently preferred not to fill it with material drawn from elsewhere. (The notes allude to a concert given the day before, with Eugen Jochum directing Beethoven’s Seventh and Bruckner’s Ninth, another mouth-watering prospect.)
What of the performance? Barbirolli made two studio recordings of the symphony nearly 30 years apart, and they are scarcely recognizable as the work of the same conductor, from the fast-paced (not to say superficial) 1940 breeze-through in New York (Columbia, currently on Barbirolli Society/Dutton Labs) to the leisurely ripeness of his late-1960s version with the Vienna Philharmonic (EMI). There’s also a rather freewheeling live performance with the Bavarian Radio Orchestra in 1970 (Orfeo) and another live version from Boston in 1959, recently released by the Barbirolli Society, that I haven’t heard yet.
The Coventry performance has the fullness, amplitude, and measured deliberation familiar from the later EMI cycle, but with an added intensity and power that set it apart. Barbirolli clearly relished the unique tonal qualities of the Berliners in every department, and their wholehearted, galvanizing response to his brand of unhurried Brahmsian lyricism translates to unforgettable music-making. The cathedral acoustic is surprisingly well detailed, though its reverberant overhang obviously presented a challenge, dictating (I’m guessing) the very spacious tempos (actually no slower than those in the later Vienna and Munich performances—though by that time he had become a much slower conductor in general). One is reminded more than usual of Brahms’s comments regarding the symphony’s “black border.” The first movement glows darkly (low brass very prominent in the balance) at an unhurried, flexible pulse. The Adagio is likewise one of the most darkly dramatic I have heard in a long time, and Barbirolli’s measured pace for the intermezzo-like Allegretto enables both great delicacy and a more powerful bite than usual. The finale is massive and trenchant, artfully shaped with great clarity of outline and precision of articulation (against the odds of the acoustic). The very end is arresting, with Barbirolli daringly elongating the silence before the final chord, to electrifying effect in the cathedral acoustic. In keeping with the locale and solemnity of the event, the audience remains silent after the performance.
In sum, this is Barbirolli’s most strongly characterful Brahms Second on record. Despite the short measure, this is not to be missed.