LABELS: BBC Legends
WORKS: Symphony No. 4. Le corsaire Overture
PERFORMER: Heather Harper (soprano); BBC SO/John Barbirolli
CATALOGUE NO: BBCL 4014-2 ADD
For once, a series lives up to its name, continuing to pull its ‘legends’ out of a particularly fine top hat. It was no mistake to issue two Mahler Fours in one month, for no two interpreters could be farther apart than Britten (in 1961), briskly suggesting at first the Schubert-Mendelssohn tradition, and that febrile Romantic Barbirolli (in 1967). Yet appearances can be deceptive. Barbirolli is certainly all outsized bright eyes and swooning graciousness, but the messy ritardando three bars into the symphony sounds warning bells which continue to ring whenever the fantastical journey lets up and the skies clear. Only after the last, theatrical gesture at the heaven’s-gate close of the slow movement does divine steadiness takes over. Having already assumed the declamatory soprano role in Britten’s War Requiem, Harper hardly embodies Mahler’s childlike vision, but she does match Barbirolli’s last-minute mysticism superbly. Berlioz’s Le corsaire then roisters in familiarly heavyweight Barbirolli style.
With Britten, the mysticism is there in spades, and after a carefully coloured scherzo his unobtrusive mastery has one regularly catching the breath in the richest and most coherent performance of the Poco adagio I’ve ever heard; the sound of birdsong outside Orford Church in the performance’s loneliest moment adds sentiment to the accomplished fact. Yes, Joan Carlyle does begin her last phrase a bar and a half early, but she adjusts immediately and enchantment reigns. The six songs are gems to follow a multi-faceted diamond, miracles of sensitive articulation from both singers and orchestra. David Nice