Barbirolli = HAYDN: Symphony No. 83, “The Hen”; BERLIOZ: Symphonie fantastique – SWF Sym. Orch. Baden-Baden/ Sir John Barbirolli – ICA Classics

by | Oct 10, 2013 | Classical Reissue Reviews

Barbirolli = HAYDN: Symphony No. 83 in G Minor “The Hen”; BERLIOZ: Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14 – SWF Sym. Orch. Baden-Baden/ Sir John Barbirolli – ICA Classics ICAC 5105, 80:17 [Distr. by Naxos] ****: 

In early February 1969 Sir John Barbirolli (1899-1970) accepted various engagements outside his native Manchester and the Halle Orchestra – whose helm he had occupied since 1943 – mainly in Europe.  The two Barbirolli staples included on this fine restoration derive from sessions in the Hans Rosbaud-Studio, Baden-Baden, appropriately named for the fine German conductor whose own enterprising spirit commanded many diverse musical styles.

The opening Haydn Symphony in G Minor (24 February 1969) from 1785 carries a girth and weight – in recognition of its opening storm and stress – other conductors would not necessarily apply to its often witty figures. Berlin Philharmonic players involved in Barbirolli’s Haydn performances often commented that “the moment he began rehearsing Haydn with us we knew he ranked among the exceptional, really musical, conductors.” Employing a dated edition of the score, Barbirolli elicits a decidedly Romantic ethos from the music, especially in the Andante, which presents a series of scales and accompaniment tropes with no actual melody. The sonorities Barbarolli elicits from Rosbaud’s old ensemble resonate with a baroque affect. The Menuet plays into Barbirolli’s capable hands, given its shift of accent from the offbeat, a slightly askew combination of French court dance by way of the Austrian rustic scene. The solo flute in the Trio section offers a moment of refined leisure. The last movement, Finale: Vivace, combines gigue and contredanse in Haydn’s patented rondo-sonata form with repeated exposition, suddenly interrupted momentarily by bleak minor chords. The thoroughly ingenuous tune revives, however, with hearty energy, adding to the sense of play via a pregnant pause.

Barbirolli’s affection for the Berlioz Fantastic Symphony enjoys fertile documentation, and here (22-24 February 1969) he extends with loving sonorities his long association (beginning in 1933) with Berlioz’s reveries, passions, and nightmares. Listen carefully, and you can hear his singing the lines along with the strings in the opening movement. Attention to Berlioz’s interior lines, their vocally sinewy continuity, and their sudden metric shifts lights up this exuberantly broad reading. The SWF oboe late in the first movement carries the eerie transformation of the idée fixe whose feminine charm eventually unravels into the compelling voice of the fatal Siren. Chills and eroticism mark Un bal, whose beguiling waltz possesses a most liquid harp playing and a catch-in-the-breath phrasing we know from the Sibelius Valse triste. The bucolic meanderings of the Adagio (Scene aux champs) pulsate with an erotic, sudden, nervous life, Berlioz cross-fertilized by Baudelaire. The savage ironies of the last two movements do not escape Barbirolli, who alternately flirts with, seduces, and devours our musical persona whose inamorata has systematically become Poe’s Ligeia. The last pages sound nothing less than torrential, Barbirolli and his splendid ensemble having yielded to the grand passions of the Romantic imagination.

—Gary Lemco