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Trawling for treasure

BILL NEWMAN seeks out Golden Age performers now reinstated on CD

BBC    BBCL 4055-2

BBC Legends - Barbirolli (c) 2000 BBC Music


Many years back I heard Sir John Barbirolli's performance of Strauss's Ein Heldenleben on the BBC Third Programme with the combined Hallé and BBC Northern Orchestras.

It is strange to reflect that during the thirties, forties, and fifties it required the advocacies of other conductors to keep the Strauss tone poems in the repertory, particularly Mengelberg, Reiner, Böhm and Beecham. When Sir Eugene Goossens gave a rare airing to Also sprach Zarathustra with the BBC Symphony, critical understanding in the press next day was both conflicting and confusing. What was the music about? Should one take it seriously? The Sinfonia Domestica and Ein Heldenleben also had their detractors because of the exaggerated autobiographical content. I overheard two elderly gentlemen in the Royal Festival Hall in the sixties express uncertainty about the latter work's value -- bombast, or great music? Beecham and the Royal Philharmonic dismissed any doubts.

Today we are hopefully beyond such petty inhibitions. Barbirolli's compulsive commitment to this music and attention to detail, his balancing of forces allowing important wind solos the freedom to be heard, the nasal satire of woodwind configurations in 'The Hero's Adversaries', and the broadening of power in 'Deeds of War'. The return to the main subject at its close is majesterial [listen -- track 10, 6:00-6:45].

The final apotheosis in 'The Hero's Retirement from the World and the Fulfilment of his Life' is marked by a continued sense of stillness, quite unique in comparison with other performances.

Barbirolli's disappointing EMI commercial recording can now definitely take a back seat. Now, can we finally have that wonderful Mahler 6 with the Hallé Orchestra from the Proms?

To be continued >> 


Copyright © 23 May 2001 Bill Newman, Edgware, UK







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Record Box is Music & Vision's regular Wednesday series of shorter CD reviews