Testament SBT 1418, 77:03 (Distrib. Harmonia mundi) ****:
We have two monumental inscriptions of Sibelius symphonies by Sir John Barbirolli (1899-1970), of which the E-flat is taken from a live BBC Proms Concert (9 August 1968), a superbly controlled realization in which the Halle winds and strings seem to deliver every nuanced gesture their conductor demands. The first movement unfolds as a massive arch, evolving and coloristically blooming before our ears, each layer contributing to the dramatically taut structure. Given the breadth and rich, textured fabric of the orchestral interplay, we might speculate that we were auditioning a Celibidache Fifth, except for the free, improvised nature of the concluding pages. The essentially bucolic nature of the Andante mosso receives a delightful balance in all parts, always transparent, the line over the pizzicati a combination of rarified aether and pastoral nostalgia. Spacious, eminently vocal, trippingly magical, the music assumes a persuasive dignity that speaks volumes to Barbirolli’s long commitment to this Northern vision of Arcadia. The agitated, nervous energy Barbirolli educes from the Halle for the Allegro molto that soon transforms–via huge pedal tones–itself into a hymnody of conviction communicates itself in every bar; even the coughs of the audience become subsumed into the unique fabric of Sibelius’ tonal world. At the last, patient beats, the audience erupts and can still be heard as the sound of the CD decays.
The Sibelius D Major Symphony with the Royal Philharmonic has had a previous life on Reader’s Digest records and a Chesky CD. Recorded 1 & 9 October 1962, with Charles Gerhardt the producer, the inscription bears the hallmarks of the fully cooperative participants for the project, which became possible after the passing of the orchestra’s immortal autocrat, Sir Thomas Beecham. Unlike any other, commercial Barbirolli inscription of the D Major, this one seems thoroughly cognizant of the epic reading in 1950 by the Boston Symphony under Serge Koussevitzky. Besides the whiplash approach to the unorthodox sonata form of the first movement, it is Barbirolli’s handling of the Andante–its Aeolian, modal yearnings–that compels heroic comparisons with Koussevitzky’s effort. The last two movements mount, as per expectation, to a grand statement of Nature’s consolation. A savage clarity in all parts marks the conception, which outshines Beecham’s own studio effort with his orchestra. In fact, Beecham fared better in this piece in concert with the BBC. Even for those who already own the EMI Sibelius series with Barbirolli, this disc will complement their manifold pleasures with a deep resonance that proves stylistically irresistible.
— Gary Lemco