Schubert • Britten • Sibelius
Were the leading postwar conductors better than today’s generation? For reviewing purposes, the nostalgia factor needs to be put aside: but, as this 1969 concert recording makes clear, the question won’t go away. It would be unreasonable to take John Barbirolli to task for what now sounds like his ponderous, big-orchestra approach to Schubert’s C minor Symphony. This performance happened years before the early music movement got its decisive grip on the period; and if the quick movements here sound heavy-footed, there’s no mistaking the impressive call to attention conjured in the first movement’s slow introduction. We don’t think of Barbirolli as specially associated with Britten’s music (although he conducted the first performances of the Violin Concerto and Sinfonia da Requiem). His response to the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings’s range of sounds and moods is memorable nonetheless, with superb singing from Gerald English and a marvellous sense of time-suspended rapture in the closing ‘Sonnet’: the vibrato of Hermann Baumann’s bombproof horn-playing sounds strange, however, to Anglo-Saxon ears (mine, anyway). Sibelius’s Second Symphony is here an exemplary display of how to generate an enthralling voltage-level from the podium without pulling the music about. Unfortunately, some of the orchestral playing – sour principal oboe, rough brass – isn’t up to today’s standards.