The young John Barbirolli was hardly known in America when the New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra chose him to be Arturo Toscanini’s successor starting in 1937. The 36-year-old Londoner’s first season was a triumph with both players and audiences, and although his years in New York would be increasingly marred by unfair rivalry with Toscanini – lured back to lead a specially created NBC Symphony – and by partisan hostility from two influential critics, Barbirolli’s tenure can now be looked back on as a real success.
From 1938 until 1943, when he returned to the UK to take over Manchester’s Hallé Orchestra, Sir John made a series of recordings in New York for American Columbia and RCA Victor which are still essential for a full appreciation of this revered conductor’s career, “performances that are as competitive today as they were when initially released” (Fanfare). Sony Classical is pleased to reissue them in a newly remastered six-CD set.
Among the treasures here are Debussy’s Iberia and Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini (both recorded in 1938) and the first-ever recording of Schubert’s Fourth (“Tragic”) Symphony (from 1939), together cited by Gramophone as “a demonstration that the Philharmonic-Symphony had few rivals in the world at the time as a recording orchestra … A forceful, high-powered reading [of the symphony] which yet has a Schubertian smile … The crisp attack in the Tchaikovsky, even tauter than in Barbirolli’s superb 1969 HMV New Philharmonia version, is thrillingly caught. The Debussy brings the most vivid sound of all, weighty and full of presence, with castanets and brass leaping out from the speakers. This is a white-hot performance, every bit as exciting as those of Toscanini, and with a moving vein of tenderness in the slow second movement.”
There are several works by Mozart, among them the Clarinet Concerto with Benny Goodman (from 1940) and the Symphony No. 25 and Piano Concerto No. 27 with Robert Casadesus (both from 1941). The Piano Concerto’s opening Allegro “is beautifully shaped with an almost palpable sense of wonder in the music and the pianist is definitely having a ball of time,” said Classical Net. “The final Allegro is also very commendable for its grand sense of pomp and majesty … The exquisite symphony also receives wonderful attention and care from Barbirolli and the NYPSO. Here one can sense the conductor's love for Mozart’s inspired melodies … Benny Goodman is a characterful interpreter of the Clarinet Concerto.”
“The generous flavor of Barbirolli’s Brahms comes through in the Academic Festival Overture and the Second Symphony [both from 1940],” wrote Audiophile Audition’s reviewer. “The Overture is rife with ceremonial grandeur and jolly spirits. The D major Symphony has a debonair airiness and bucolic relaxation about it.” And Sibelius’s First Symphony (from 1942) “should delight fans of Barbirolli’s 1960s complete traversal of the symphonies … The conductor’s warmth, vision, and emotional urgency has lost none of its appeal in the more than half century that has passed” (Fanfare).
Also from 1942 is Nathan Milstein playing the Bruch Concerto with “the Philharmonic-Symphony in tremendous form,” exclaimed MusicWeb International’s critic. “Barbirolli opens powerfully and Milstein responds in kind; not over emoted and with vibrato perfectly scaled to the demands of the music. He is really quite withdrawn and introspective in the Adagio, powerfully so indeed, and Barbirolli brings out the horn harmonies in a way that seems to reveal them for the first time. There is romantic fervour but also passagework clarity and digital cleanliness in the finale … a model of concerto accompaniment and creative collaboration.”
It is surely no coincidence that this retrospective set is released in the 50th anniversary year of Sir John Barbirolli’s death. It focuses on almost all – but not quite all – of Barbirolli’s recordings with his Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York, here updated to ‘New York Philharmonic’. The missing item is the Schumann Violin Concerto with Menuhin, the rights of which now lie with Warner. The inclusion of Bach's Sheep May Safely Graze is very welcome here, and as Leonard Slatkin showed in his Bach ‘Conductors’ Transcriptions’ album, it’s a most effective and affecting piece of work.
The first of the six well-filled discs disinters Barbirolli’s arrangements of Purcell. The six-movement Suite proves memorably sonorous and full bloodied with highlights being Fairest Isle and When I am Laid in Earth. This is followed by a splendidly recorded and vividly played Iberia with the Victor engineers on top form, and Francesca da Rimini. Respighi’s The Fountains of Rome and the Arie di corte from the Ancient Airs and Dances are similarly charged.
The Schubert Fourth on Disc 2 - the first recording of the work ever made - is tremendously impressive: powerful, lyrical, excellently controlled. Brahms’ Second Symphony however is exceptionally fast – not a criticism that could ever be levelled at the older JB – and if one thinks that Monteux in San Francisco in 1945 was fleetness itself that would be to reckon without Barbirolli. The Allegretto is uncomfortable to listen to and in fact the whole performance is unconvincing on a number of levels.
Sibelius comes to the rescue in disc three where there are memorable recordings of the First Symphony (1942) and the Second (1940). Sibelius was a known Barbirolli strength but his tempi in the 1950s with the Hallé are predictably more driven than those he took in the following decade. If sound quality is king then the Hallé recordings from the 60s are preferable but interpretively the 1957 First and the 1952 Second – along with the famous RPO Second – are indispensable, along with these two New York recordings.
The fourth CD is a bits-and-pieces affair. There’s lusty Smetana, a brightly recorded but idiomatically played Rimsky Capriccio espagnole, and La Valse which faced predictably strong competition on disc from Munch and Monteux. If the string tone in Le Carnaval romain is a touch acidic, the Academic Festival Overture is more rounded, and the performance a strong B plus. Benny Goodman joins for a timbrally distinctive Debussy First Rhapsody. There’s more Goodman in the penultimate disc where he plays Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. Casadesus and Barbirolli make a fine team in Mozart’s Concerto No. 27. Symphony No.25 completes this all-Mozart disc; athletic, youthful and vibrant.
Nathan Milstein’s excellent Bruch G minor heads the final disc and whilst the recording is not top-drawer, Milstein’s playing is. Tchaikovsky’s Tema con variazioni from the Orchestral Suite No.3 is slightly cut. Finally, we end with Barbirolli’s An Elizabethan Suite, his arrangements of Byrd, Farnaby, and Bull, a synchronous way to end given that the first piece of the first disc was his Purcell arrangement.
Each disc is housed in a retro, 78rpm album sleeve and the booklet is filled with 78 and subsequent LP sleeves – very colourful and tactile – as well as job and recording sheets from the sessions and black and white photographs of Barbirolli.
This box is a finely produced and concentrated focus on Barbirolli’s New York shellac years and comes with a fair-minded, level-headed booklet note from James H North.
– MusicWeb International (Jonathan Woolf)