Sibelius: Symphonies (complete); Karelia Suite; Pohjola’s Daughter; Pelléas and Mélisande Suite (excerpts),

COMPOSERS: Sibelius
LABELS: EMI
WORKS: Symphonies (complete); Karelia Suite; Pohjola’s Daughter; Pelléas and Mélisande Suite (excerpts),
PERFORMER: Hallé Orchestra/John Barbirolli
CATALOGUE NO: CMS 5 67299 2 ADD Reissue (1966-70)
Barbirolli’s first recording of a Sibelius symphony, the Second, comes way back from his days with the New York Philharmonic. He recorded Nos 1, 2, 5 and 7 more than once, but not the remaining three. The present cycle, together with the other orchestral pieces, was recorded between 1966 and 1970. Sibelius was a lifelong passion and the Sixth Symphony was in the last concert he conducted. He recorded it shortly afterwards, a couple of months before his death. Although one or two may have been reissued on CD, most have not – and their reappearance is long overdue.

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At the time, Barbirolli had only recently recorded the Second Symphony (in 1963 with the RPO and made for a Readers’ Digest project) and for long, this led the field. But the present Hallé version runs it fairly close. The First Symphony has great freshness, too, and the Fifth has nobility and vision. The same could be said for his mighty realisation of the Seventh, which has a masterly control of pace. Not everything finds this great conductor on peak form. The Third is well paced, but a bit wanting in tension, and in the Sixth one feels a want of concentration and momentum. In the Fourth he distils a powerful and brooding atmosphere, though ensemble is not impeccable (nor, come to that, is it in the Sixth). It is a pity that he did not retake the few bars in the development section of the first movement, where a sense of uncertainty reigns. But perhaps he was right in feeling that he would not have been able to recapture the atmosphere so effectively (as I was assured at the time). I remember his Festival Hall account from about this time which had great intensity and sense of line.

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Barbirolli had a special feeling for this world and this shows throughout the set. There is an inspired Pohjola’s Daughter and a hardly less impressive account of three of the Scènes historiques. The recordings all come from a vintage era for EMI engineering, and are well transferred. As always, there is strong personality and a vibrant glow about Barbirolli’s music-making which makes everything he did rather special.