BBC Legends BBCL 4186-2, 76:57 (Distrib. Koch) ****:
The E Major Symphony of Anton Bruckner remained a staple of Sir John Barbirolli (1899-1970) from his first encounter with its magisterial length in 1939 with the New York Philharmonic. The present performance (26 April 1967) confirms Barbirolli’s tremendous affection for the work (in the Nowak Edition) in which Barbirolli probes its knotty, often repetitive labyrinths for moments of transcendence. While Hans Richter had given the British premier of the Seventh in Manchester in 1904, it had not been heard again in that city until Barbirolli took it up in 1943. Always one to relish an epic canvas, Barbirolli allows the spaciousness of the design to sound grandly from the string pianissimi to the stentorian Wagner tubas that the composer utilized for the first time in any symphonic work. Each of Bruckner’s monolithic periods receives alternately lyric and solemn outpourings, the hymns alchemically mixed with bird calls and mountain songs. Singing along with his orchestra, Barbirolli elicits several demonic moments out of the development section, just prior to the tympani’s under-girded transition to the recapitulation. The coda’s resplendent chord in E Major, 30 bars long, proves colossal by any Brucknerite’s standard.
Pregnant ritards mark Barbirolli’s unfolding of the massive Adagio, the heart of the symphony. Melancholy and cosmic mystery enter into a dialectic which displays the Halle’s capacity for the long, unbroken line and the resonance of its basses. For sheer unity of sound, the Halle rivals the Stokowski effect in Philadelphia or the Mengelberg homogeneity in Amsterdam. Loftiness of approach is perhaps the best summary of Barbirolli’s especial appeal in this movement. The Scherzo’s hunting motif, however, restores the earthy, blood-pulsing humanity to the proceedings; the tympani, horns, and strings in rustic collusion. The easy charm of the trio section may recall at several points the relaxed demeanor of Eduard van Beinum in this same music. Crisp, light, string figurations for the Finale. Bucolic woodwinds. The Wagner tubas make their presence felt early, then the hymnal march to glory. The Nowak Edition of the Finale, for my money, permits redundancies in the phrasings while cutting the score and offsetting textural mass that might counterbalance the girth of the two opening movements. Still, Barbirolli squeezes out every visceral drop of affective juice from the score, and the Halle audience responds with unbridled fervor.
Beethoven’s Egmont Overture (1 December 1966) had opened Barbirolli’s 1943 season with the Halle Orchestra. After a deliberate introductory section, emphasizing winds and French horn, Barbirolli accelerates the tempo briskly while expanding the sonority to a fearsome struggle and call for freedom. Nice articulation of the polyphony in this titanic moment of Goethean drama. Whether the finale is Beethoven or febrile Rossini is anyone’s guess. The Overture to Beethoven’s ballet The Creatures of Prometheus (30 April 1969) opens with as much pomp as any state ceremony; then, all is gay briskness in the spirit of the Second Symphony. Perky, deft, solid in the bass line, and eminently sparkling, the music captures the high spirits of composer and performer in devoted harmony.
— Gary Lemco