BRAHMS: Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73 – Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/ Sir John Barbirolli – Testament

by | Dec 21, 2011 | Classical Reissue Reviews

BRAHMS: Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73 – Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/ Sir John Barbirolli – Testament SBT 1469, 43:37 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:
“A musical offering of the noblest sort,” remarked Provost Williams at the 6 June 1962 concert held at the Coventry Cathedral, with the Berlin Philharmonic’s being guest conducted by Sir John Barbirolli. The Cathedral, also known as St. Michael’s Church, had been badly destroyed during the WW II blitz, and the concert with the German orchestra represented much by way of spiritual reconciliation as about music-making.  Sir John Barbirolli (1899-1970) had made his debut with members of  the Berlin Philharmonic as early as 1949, when visiting orchestra players sojourned to Edinburgh to perform music by Wagner, Elgar, Roussel, Debussy, and Barber. Among the influential of guest conductors with the Berlin Philharmonic, it was Barbirolli who helped to revitalize the role of Gustav Mahler’s music in the BPO repertory.
The Brahms D Major Symphony with Barbirolli bears all the sensitive hallmarks of the occasion, including an unearthly resonance from the concert venue itself, rife with valediction. Barbirolli unfolds an expansive Allegro non troppo that must have sent many of the Berliners’ minds back to their Furtwaengler experience, that mystical combination of sunny energy and tearful nostalgia. Tympani and oboe commune in pantheistic harmony before the broad cello line carries us away to some halcyon region of the spirit. The development in A Major extends the jovial mood, though drooping harmonies in the bass cast a few shadows. Wonderful French horn and flute effects ensue and the music becomes strikingly contrapuntal. A leisurely transition to the recap invokes an even more sensuous rendition of the F-sharp Minor melody. Exquisite horn playing takes us to the serene stasis (sempre tranquillo) that precedes the woodwind-serenade coda. 
Something of Ein deutsches Requiem pervades the broad cello line in B Major that opens the Adagio non troppo. Barbirolli’s tempo moves very slowly, allowing the French horn and accompanying winds to beckon spirits from the Black Forest. The Brahms penchant for sequences does not lead to anything like monotony, since Barbirolli expands the evolving variations on the theme to build majestically to a fever pitch. Kudos to the BPO bassoons and violas for some captivating interplay which the horn punctuates in the midst of mysterious passing harmonies. When the brass section opens up, we feel that Brahms has taken a page from Wagner, except that the urge to sonata form commands this Hamburg composer’s emotional life.  Barbirolli takes the G Major Allegretto as a delicate study in andantino, a wind serenade that soon evolves, Presto, to some spirited suggestions in 2/4 and later 3/8. The strings bounce lithely in the spirit of Mendelssohn, the flutes almost idyllically balletic. Again, Barbirolli conveys a stasis on the moment before it suddenly erupts once more in a staggered dance that seems to run down due to some dreamy entropy.
Ironic, that even in the throes of the D Major finale Brahms restrains his exultations in sonata form. Barbirolli often has the BPO roused enough in the D Major/A Major tussle to break the rope, but the composer will not allow any unbridled wanton bacchanalia until the blazing brass triumph at the coda. Wonderful flute riffs take us to another outburst in syncopes, the momentum once again rising to an anti-climax. Suspensions and the slowed down main theme renew the advance to an inevitable freedom of spirit, but not before the plants from mother earth boil and brew slowly into chunks of the poet’s “rebounding hail.” The sheer warmth of the enterprise compels our awe as the long-awaited call to liberation finally overcomes the composer’s interior restraints, and Barbirolli compresses the sun into a ball and makes it run. Only silence follows, a fermata in space as well as time.
Ordinarily, I’d award this disc three stars for its stingy assignment of one forty-minute work, but in honor of the occasion and Sir John’s accomplishment, I say full purchase ahead. [There is another Testament double-disc coupling this with a Mahler symphony…Ed.]
—Gary Lemco

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