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|Edward Elgar, Gustav Mahler, Giacomo Puccini|
Great Conductors of the 20th century: Sir John Barbirolli
The Barbirolli volume in the Great Conductors series focuses on relatively rare items in Sir John's discography. This Elgar Enigma Variations, for example, is his first stereo version, not the later, better-known one, whic... more »
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The Barbirolli volume in the Great Conductors series focuses on relatively rare items in Sir John's discography. This Elgar Enigma Variations, for example, is his first stereo version, not the later, better-known one, which has a better orchestra. But this 1956 Pye release has a lot going for it, too, not least the extra touch of warmth in the string-centered slower variations like "Nimrod." There's also a long out-of-print Ravel Mother Goose Suite with the Halle winds a bit overextended, a heavyweight Meistersinger Act One Prelude, and a magnificent Love Duet from one of Barbirolli's rare complete opera recordings, Puccini's Madama Butterfly, with Scotto and Bergonzi both in great voice. The real rarity, though, is the Mahler Second, a work Barbirolli often performed in his later years, but never recorded. EMI provides strong, cleaned-up stereo sound for this live performance from Stuttgart made shortly before the conductor's death. Barbirolli's performance is full of passionate fervor, but execution is often slipshod. Still, admirers of Barbirolli's Mahler will want his only available Mahler Second. --Dan Davis
A GREAT MAHLER 2
Klingsor Tristan | Suffolk | 09/13/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"The centre-piece of this fascinating concert is the Mahler 2. This is a very dramatic as well as a predictably passionate reading from Barbirolli, made not very long before his death. The ensemble of the Stuttgart Radio Orchestra can be a bit dodgy at times and there are the occasional spills as well as the thrills of a live performance. Nevertheless, this is a most definitely a performance to be reckoned with and infinitely superior to Sir John's earlier recording with the Berlin Philharmonic. Barbirolli gives huge weight and drama to the main material of the opening movement (just listen to the hammered out, accelerating chords that lead into the recapitulation) while the second subject soars with a passion that Sir John seems uniquely capable of conjuring up with his groans. There is more contrast than usual between the two middle movements: the first has the flow and delicacy to keep it moving with wonderful rich and warm playing of the big cello tune (Barbirolli's own instrument, remember): the second, the scherzo appropriated by Berio for his Sinfonia, is pointed with real piquant wit as St. Anthony makes his futile sermon to the fish, the rute (a kind of birch switch smacked against the casing of a bass drum) is well to the fore, and both trios are done with great beauty of tone. Urlicht is suitably solemn from Birgit Finnila, but wonderfully shaped and coloured by Barbirolli. And the last movement is just immense with, at the end, Helen Donath emerging as she should (but seldom does) from the choir to soar above them, before the gates open for the big "Aufersteh'n" in which the brass descants are thrilling. EMI have done wonders with the sound - compared to other versions of this performance - the richness and depth of the brass chorales in Urlicht and the final movement are beautiful and the very end has earth-shaking tam-tam, bells, organ, etc.
A lot of the rest of the concert shows off Barbirolli as an opera conductor, a very fine one who was grossly underutilised in the age of the LP. But he had been responsible for the memorable Coronation Year Turandot with Martinelli and Eva Turner as well as that finest ever recording of the Meistersinger Quartet with Schumann, Melchior, Schorr et al. The Meistersinger Overture on this set is a fine one with plenty of weight and space to breathe, allowing the wonderful counterpoint to tell as it should - Wagner showing off, saying as it were, "I bet you didn't think all those themes would fit together so well!" There is also the magical and very sexy Act 1 Love Duet from Sir John's wonderful Butterfly with Bergonzi and Scotto.
For the rest, there is a fine set of Enigmas with his beloved Halle, the earlier rarer recording from Pye which is very good but in which there are no surprises if you know his later performance. The surprise here (in repertoire terms, at least) is a magical, fairy tale Mother Goose Suite. One wouldn't normally think of Sir John and Ravel as perfect partners - passionate commitment against a certain aesthetic detachment and all that - but Barbirolli's is a fine performance and the piece can easily take that extra bit of passionate commitment.
These are a highly recommendable pair of discs, worth getting for the Mahler alone.