LABELS: BBC Legends
WORKS: Symphony No. 5; Symphony No. 8 (Unfinished); Symphony No. 40 in G minor
PERFORMER: Hallé Orchestra/John Barbirolli
CATALOGUE NO: BBCL 4120-2 ADD mono/stereo
Though Mozart and Schubert were among Barbirolli’s musical idols, he left few commercial discs of their music, which makes this compilation of Sixties radio recordings all the more welcome. On the downside you’ll have to live with the matt, occasionally congested sound quality (both the Mozart G minor and the Unfinished are in mono) and some nugatory orchestral slips. Barbirolli’s tempi, too, tend to be leisurely by today’s standards, especially in the Mozart, and his orchestral balances weighted in favour of the strings. But if he emphasises the G minor Symphony’s elegiac fatalism at the expense of its passion and turbulence, you’ll hear few performances on disc that cultivate such an intense, eloquent singing line: listen, for instance, to Barbirolli’s exquisite, yet never indulgent, phrasing of the second subjects of both outer movements – shades here of Bruno Walter.
Barbirolli’s Proms broadcast of Schubert’s Fifth can’t quite match Beecham’s classic Fifties recording for grace, lightness of touch and sheer orchestral polish. But only diehard purists will be able to resist the lovingly shaped and inflected slow movement, complete with lingering rallentandos and old-fashioned string portamentos.
Best of all here is Barbirolli’s Unfinished, a performance of immense humanity and tragic insight that balances a characteristic care for songful and poignant detail with a majestic architectural control. The long, apocalyptic crescendos in the development and coda of the first movement – always something of a litmus test – are sustained and clinched with consummate mastery. Given the sound quality and the occasionally fallible orchestral playing, this cannot rival Günter Wand with the Berlin PO (RCA) or the leaner, more urgent Carlos Kleiber with the Vienna PO (DG) as a first-choice Unfinished. But a performance of such passion and lyric intensity demands to be heard, and not only by the Barbirolli faithful. Richard Wigmore