Dutton CDSJB 1028 59:42 (Distrib. Harmonia mundi) ****:
This collection of CBS masters, 1940-1942, represents the fourth volume of the association between conductor John Barbirolli (1899-1970) and the New York Philharmonic, his tenure with the often times recalcitrant ensemble having endured for seven years, 1936-1943. Composer-conductor Bernard Herrmann once quipped that had Barbirolli worked in any other American city, Britain would have lost one of their great conductors. Invidious comparisons to Toscanini always plagued critical assessments of Barbirolli, who despite having assumed the helm of the Philharmonic at thirty-six, was still berated for his relative youthfulness. Still, Barbirolli’s accounts of the music of Brahms, Elgar, Wagner, Ravel, and Debussy were consistently held in good esteem.
The generous flavor of Barbirolli’s Brahms comes through in his 1940 shellacs of the Academic Festival Overture (16 November 1940) and the Second Symphony (2 April 1940), transferred with unobtrusive clarity by Michael Dutton. The Overture is rife with ceremonial grandeur and jolly spirits. The D Major Symphony has a debonair airiness and bucolic relaxation about it, a sweet serenity and straightforward, unaffected motion. The lyric gentility of the approach is nowhere more evident than in the counterpoints and rhythmic shifts, the seamless hemiolas, which pass before us in rapid succession. Strings and tympani mount an impressive, almost glib, long line back to the recapitulation. For the period of recording and the well-documented shabbiness of CBS shellacs, the transfer of the Adagio non troppo is little short of a miracle of the quietude of CEDAR digital processing, the strings and woodwinds in pointed, articulated resonance. Directness and honesty of approach prove the rule here, vivid, expressive playing, though often quite fast. The Allegretto seems literally to bubble from some Viennese freshet. The second subject is a scramble, deft, but more skittish Mendelssohn than Brahms. The coda could have been extrapolated from the Serenade, Op. 16. The string pizzicatos have been telling us that Barbirolli is ready to burst forth in the Allegro con spirito, and they keep their promise in blazing fashion, for all of Brahms’s innate reticence.
The Smetana (2 April 1940), whose whirring motion suggests the infectious, bussing nature of gossip, combines lightness and deftness of texture with robust energy, the Philharmonic winds in virile shape. The fugal section attests to a remarkable discipline, the string rockets Mozart with a Slavonic color. Flute, strings, trumpet in brilliant spotlight, proceeding to a whirlwind coda of hectic intensity. What a mighty contrast does the Elizabethan Suite (12 April 1942) make, with its somber , stately pageantry, the music of Byrd and contemporaries Farnaby and Bull, ruminating, via galliards and pavanes, in ruffs and courtly mummery. With the King’s Hunt we conclude a fine demonstration of what Barbirolli’s last year with the Philharmonic had to offer its patrons, who upon hearing the announcement of Barbirolli’s departure for Manchester, broke out into an unprecedented, collective singing of “Auld Lang Syne.”
— Gary Lemco