April 2004

Sir John Barbirolli - The Columbia Masters, Vol. 1
Dutton CDSJB 1025
Released: 2003

by Richard Freed

Musical Performance *****
Recording Quality **
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

Sir John Barbirolli, who died in 1970, is remembered now as one of the towering conductors of his time, his greatness documented by more than a few outstanding recordings with British and Continental orchestra. But he was not always so highly regarded. In 1937 it was his lot, at age 36, to succeed the legendary Arturo Toscanini as conductor of the New York Philharmonic. Toscanini was a tough act to follow. The Philharmonic had even absorbed Walter Damrosch’s New York Symphony Orchestra in order to give him the finest possible ensemble in that city. (It was called the Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York for some years, and its operating society is still so named.) The young Barbirolli had good instincts and impeccable taste; he put together imaginative and substantial programs; the musicians liked him; both Victor and Columbia found him efficient and capable in the recording studio. Some of the critics, however, apparently had an unexplained animus toward him, and it didn’t help that shortly after he began his first season in New York Toscanini himself returned there at the head of the superb new orchestra assembled especially for him by the National Broadcasting Company (the NBC Symphony Orchestra) and took a conspicuous part in the Philharmonic’s own centennial season, 1941-42. Barbirolli was out in 1943: he went to Manchester, where he built the venerable Hallé Orchestra into one of Britain’s best and remained its chief until his death.

Actually, there was more than mere "promise" in several of the performances Barbirolli recorded in New York in his late 30s and early 40s, a great deal more than a mere inkling of the stature he was to attain after returning home. Some effort on the listener’s part was required to discover this, however. American Columbia, which made the greater part of those recordings, was not fully competitive with RCA Victor in respect to sound quality during those years, and the pressings themselves -- those curious "laminated" 78s with a layer of paper between the shellac playing surfaces -- didn’t help. It turned out later, though, that at least some of those recordings may have been a good deal more realistic than those pressings suggested. When the first batches of LPs from Columbia brought us transfers of Bruno Walter’s Schubert C major Symphony and Stravinsky conducting his own Rite of Spring, both with the Barbirolli-era Philharmonic, Irving Kolodin wrote of the new LP process as a "philosopher’s stone" that magically transformed the character of those recordings. Now, more than 60 years after the sessions, Dutton, in its ongoing collaboration with the Sir John Barbirolli Society, has brought out three absolutely stunning Barbirolli/Philharmonic performances, one of them very likely the most compelling performance of Sibelius’s First Symphony ever recorded.

Listen to the very opening of the symphony: following the clarinet soliloquy (probably the unforgettable Simeon Bellison) the strings do not merely "enter," but ignite. Here, as in no other performance I’ve heard (among them Barbirolli’s subsequent Hallé remakes), the violins flame up, illuminating an intensity that is to be sustained throughout every bar. There is no posturing or monumentalizing in this reading: the tempos, in fact, are definitely on the brisk side, like those of the composer’s most authoritative compatriots: Robert Kajanus (in the very first recording of the work), Paavo Berglund and Osmo Vänskä, in his recent Sibelius cycle for BIS. As in those performances, there is in Barbirolli’s no sense of the music’s being "driven." It is doing the driving, simply allowed to move at its own natural momentum, and in consequence all the supposed likenesses to Borodin and Tchaikovsky simply vanish in the wholly Sibelian glow.

The slow movement gains especially from this approach, keeping its austere dignity without an overlay of histrionics, and the timpani (surely Saul Goodman) virtually sing their tune in the scherzo. No letdown in the finale, either. This may have been Barbirolli’s very last recording with the Philharmonic (the Petrillo ban went into effect shortly after it was made in April 1942), and it would not be too farfetched to find in its final moments a statement of defiance as well as resolve: Barbirolli may have been years away from knighthood in the spring of 1942, but he was sure as hell captain of his soul.

The other two performances -- very considerately placed before the symphony to avoid anticlimax -- are by no means mere makeweights. Both Rimsky-Korsakov’s brilliantly showy Capriccio espagnol (from November 1940) and the Theme and Variations finale of Tchaikovsky’s Third Suite really strut their stuff here. These accounts are as rich in brilliance, elegance and all-round musical good sense as anything left us by the likes of Pierre Monteux and Ernest Ansermet, and here, too, Michael Dutton (working, as always, from original source materials, in this case metal parts and lacquers), has succeeded in finding the really quite good sound Columbia had locked away all these years. Mishel Piastro, the Philharmonic’s concertmaster at the time, played the demanding solos in both of these works. (Artur Rodzinski fired him when he took over the orchestra from Barbirolli in 1943; some old-timers will remember him as conductor of the "Longines Symphonette" broadcasts in those years.) It may be noted that the Tchaikovsky and the Sibelius were recorded on the same day. Musicians and recording teams didn’t have the advantage of tape and splicing in those days; they didn’t mess around for a week recording a symphony, either, and this is yet another factor contributing to the urgency of these inspiriting performances.

I would have hoped Barbirolli’s New York recording of Ravel’s La Valse, almost frightening in its revelation of the darkness beneath the voluptuousness, would be on this disc -- but as this is Volume 1 there is good reason to expect it on a subsequent Dutton reissue. Meanwhile, this is one absolutely not to be missed. This is no mere souvenir, but a Sibelius First like none other, and Dutton has made it incredibly listenable. Excellent documentation, too.