Barbirolli's first recorded Bruckner Symphony - with two full orchestras in Manchester, 1961
"This previously-unreleased Barbirolli/Bruckner Ninth bristles with ardent energy and yearning devotion" - Audiophile Audition
Sir John Barbirolli's recordings of Bruckner are exceptionally thin on the ground. Although his earliest known performance of music by the composer dates from 1940, it was only in the late 1950s that Bruckner's music started to creep more regularly into Barbirolli's concert repertoire, and he never recorded Bruckner commercially.
The present recording marks both the first time that Barbirolli had ever conducted the 9th Symphony (records indicate two performances of the Fourth and four of the Seventh symphonies between 1940 and 1961) and the earliest known recording of Barbirolli conducting any Bruckner work. Two later live recordings, both from 1966, have surfaced, one with the Hallé, the other with the Berlin Philharmonic.
Here we have two full orchestras playing together - itself an exceptionally rare occurrence - in a concert broadcast by the BBC from the Free Trade Hall in Manchester. My source here was a good taped, mono, FM-quality recording of a BBC broadcast of the concert, which I assume was transmitted some short time after the event (this is suggested by slightly different background hiss profiles during the announements and a lack of audience applause).
BRUCKNER Symphony No. 9 in D minor (original version)
BBC broadcast, Free Trade Hall, Manchester
From the concert of 14 December, 1961
Producer and XR Remastering: Andrew Rose
Cover artwork based on photographs of Barbirolli
Total duration: 57:43
BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra
Sir John Barbirolli, conductor
CONCERT REVIEW: After Mahler, Bruckner. At the Hallé concert in
Manchester a fortnight ago, Mahler’s unfinished 10th Symphony was
played. Last night it was the turn of Bruckner’s ninth, also an
Sir John Barbirolli treated Bruckner with equally distinguished consideration. The performance had generosity and opulence, for the Hallé and BBC Northern orchestras were in combination, but it was specially notable for its authenticity. A finale was sketched and almost finished, but only three movements were wholly put into shape by the composer himself, so last night’s rendering very properly ended with the slow movement. Moreover, this was the original version of the music. Perhaps Ferdinand Lowe, who edited the first published score, was not quote so reprehensible as the Bruckner partisans would have us believe – for the composer, like Berlioz, has a coterie of admirers who rush to protect him from the cold, harsh world, and find evidence of sinister plots and deliberate hostility at every turn – but he certainly made unwarrantable and gratuitous alterations to a remarkable work.
It is undoubtedly Bruckner at his grandest. The old naiveté has gone, and if there is still no high degree of sophistication there are unequivocal pointers to the future. Even Wagnerian chromaticism is carried a stage or two further; there are positive hints of the early Schoenberg, and even probings beyond that point. The content of the symphony, as distinct from its style – in so far, that is, as the two can ever be separable – is purposeful and moving. In form it is expansive but not rambling, and there is a dynamic quality all too often missing from the earlier symphonies.
The performance was eloquent and revealing. Sir John controlled the big ensemble so effectively that there was no suggestion of inflation or over-weight.
J. H. Elliot, The Guardian, 14 December 1961 (excerpt)
Reviews: MusicWeb International & Audiophile Audition
A rare event in the meeting of the composer and a dedicated John Barbirolli
Producer and recording engineer Andrew Rose resurrects a taped BBC performance of Bruckner’s unfinished Ninth Symphony (1887-1896) given by Sir John Barbirolli at Free Trade Hall, Manchester, England,14th December, 1961, the conductor’s debut in this music. The combined orchestras of the Halle and Northern Symphony come as a true rarity, and Barbirolli coordinates his forces well. The opening movement vibrates with a palpable luminosity, nervous and grandly ardent. The challenge lies in imposing a sense of structure on the fantasia that Bruckner unfolds, moving quickly from d minor into D-flat and E Major in order to effect potent fff climaxes spread over long periods. The earthy energy Barbirolli applies well reminds me of the performances of Bruckner by Eduard van Beinum, which likewise strain for mystical release in the face of grinding tension. The most exalted rendition, the Furtwaengler 1944 performance in Berlin, attains its anguished mysticism in the face of contemporary world history. Still, the unison triple-fortes from Barbirolli enjoy their own, muscular ferocity. We can feel a true sense of the recapitulation, rife with melancholy pauses and drooping figures, reminiscent of Michelangelo’s statues of shades. The combined trumpet work at the coda truly shatters the ozone layer to get at the heavens.
Despite harmonic ambiguity in the manner of the Beethoven Ninth Symphony, the Scherzo, too, resolves itself into d minor. In the midst of the emotional maelstroms Bruckner unleashes, a single oboe attempts to provide solace. The upward motion catapults downward in an abysmal descent, a vision out of Dante or Milton. The Trio brings a breathless relief, vainly yearning for pastoral consolation. The whirling woodwinds face thumping, nervous strings. The sense of unfathomable despair will appear later, in the final movement, when Bruckner writes a colossal chromatic chord comprised of seven pitches. Having returned to Bruckner’s original edition, without the Loewe “clean-up” campaign we can savor just how far Bruckner meant to urge traditional tonal schemes, to the point where Schoenberg felt compelled to exceed Wagner and Bruckner and dispense with conventional tonal expectations. The huge Adagio opens with an agonized hymn in a curious form of E Major, with two pitches, C and A-sharp, intruding where they do not belong. By the time we reach the massive finale in resplendent E Major, Bruckner has reprised melodies from his D Minor Mass, the Adagio of the Symphony No. 8, and a fragment from the Seventh Symphony. Barbirolli imbues Bruckner’s epic oratory with a pregnant gravitas, especially when we hear the “Dresden Amen” motif and its spirited aftermath.
That the entire movement, if not the entire Bruckner opera, serves as an extended Te Deum, we can scarcely doubt, given the alternately somber and lyrical cast of this excellently-preserved performance, which sonically transcends its origins as an FM mono source tape (using Pristine’s pseudo-stereo, which works extremely well), courtesy of great pains taken by Andrew Rose to grant us a rare event in the meeting of the composer and a dedicated John Barbirolli.
This recording will be welcomed in some quarters as a
previously unissued rarity in considerably better sound than would be
the case had Andrew Rose not worked his usual magic on the tape of the
FM mono broadcast to eliminate hiss, correct drop-outs, even-out dynamic
fluctuations and release the whole thing in Ambient Stereo. The sound
is still a bit thin and glaring by modern standards but we are talking
about what is essentially a historical live performance, and as such it
is very acceptable. We have two other recordings by Barbirolli of this
symphony, both from 1966: one with the Berlin Philharmonic and another
with the Hallé flying solo as opposed to the performance here, where
they are combined with the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra.
Barbirolli habitually adopted fast speeds in Bruckner. His beat can be fluid and mercurial – or erratic and impulsive, depending on how you hear it. As a non-fan of Jochum’s Bruckner, I tend to belong to the second camp, finding the approach of both conductors too jerky and disjointed, without the over-arching span and sense of flow I prefer to hear in Bruckner.
There are other problems: some of the playing is scrappy, and some entries are hesitant and not together, as might be expected from two combined orchestras not over-familiar with the score. The brass can be coarse and blatty, the strings a bit screechy. In addition, there is a fair amount of audience coughing and Glorious John contributes his habitual, audible “groanalong”. However, those flaws are most apparent in the first movement which is either exciting or taken too fast, depending on your taste, and there are inspired moments when Barbirolli’s spirited and heartfelt manner pays dividends: such a one is the sudden acceleration of tempo for the re-appearance of the bucolic second subject at 6’47”. The standard of playing improves considerably in the aggressive Scherzo and the Adagio goes best of all. The opening is still too gung-ho for me, lacking the otherworldly serenity I prize in that music and there is some decidedly slipshod lack of rhythmic co-ordination ten minutes into the movement between the descending octave steps for the string and the brass chords, but the rough grandeur of the closing minutes compensates.
The introductory and closing radio announcements are included here.
I cannot in all honesty call this a classic performance and would suggest that the inconsistencies in execution and indifferent sound render it more attractive to admirers of Barbirolli than to traditional Brucknerians but it is certainly to Pristine’s credit that they have made it available.