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An ideal lifestyle

Remembering Sir John and others.
Lady Evelyn Barbirolli


In my balmier days following early retirement as a Head Gardener for the local council, my colleague Barry Coward of Beulah Records suggested I should contact Lady Evelyn Barbirolli who was seeking assistance from a capable person to tidy up and plant out a selection of shrubs in her garden. The location was one of those unspoilt, picturesque properties off the lower end of London's Finchley Road, very near Swiss Cottage Underground Station. At the time, I was a trifle worried because the lady was fondly described as something of a perfectionist, and I didn't pursue the matter further.

Her husband, the great conductor Sir John, had already passed on, but his many concerts and recordings I had literally adored before and during my days at EMI Records. He had made a lasting impression on me in one important respect: How music should sound to all classical buffs at home and abroad.

Beyond those famous sessions at Kingsway Hall, the concerts and rehearsals at the Royal Albert and Royal Festival Halls, I hardly knew him personally, although I had closely watched and listened to the way he inspired players to master every aspect of the scores they were performing. In the main, he emphasized that they should listen carefully to each other to ensure that rhythmic and expressive details counterbalanced perfectly with the composer's stylistic conception of the piece. Outside that was the man and musician himself, proud of his London birthright and dedicated totally to the Art of making music for the masses. Every gesture of his arms and hands formed part of his flamboyant and purposeful personality, with an inborn sensitivity and a seriousness of expressive belief there for all to see, and soak up. That included both performers and audiences.

Evelyn and John Barbirolli in Hollywood, 1941. Photo courtesy of Lady Barbirolli/The Barbirolli Society
Evelyn and John Barbirolli in Hollywood, 1941. Photo courtesy of Lady Barbirolli/The Barbirolli Society

John and Evelyn married in 1939, but what did I know of his charming wife, the famous oboist who I first heard in my thirteenth -- or perhaps fourteenth -- year in 1946 as a pupil of Maidstone Grammar School? Their main hall was also used for meetings of the Music Club, which became so successful under the auspices of the Headmaster and music lover, W A Claydon. In those days shortly after the close of the second World War, she still styled herself Evelyn Rothwell, and gave delightful recitals usually with one of several first class lady pianists like Iris Loveridge or Valda Aveling. I thought of her as a second Leon Goossens!

Sometime last year, Laurie Watt, amateur French Horn player with the Kensington Philharmonic, and my newly established staunch friend and colleague who, like me frequents GRAMEX -- the shop in Lower Marsh, Waterloo, where I spend half my pension money on second hand CDs -- asked me if I would like a personal introduction to the great Lady. Both members of the Royal Philharmonic Society, he and she dine regularly.

I walked through the front door of her garden flat, gazing closely at paintings, photographs, books, manuscripts and so on. Absorbed in that endless shrine of fascination I had first experienced as a teenager, I harkened back that stunning RPS Hallé -- RAH Concert in the late 40s. Elgar's Froissart Overture, with its Keats caption 'When chivalry raised up her lance on high' vividly caught Barbirolli's action of bringing the arms down in thrusting manner, then raising them suddenly aloft with his baton piercing the invisible atmosphere like a knight in shining armour. The calmness of Delius's Fennimore and Gerda Intermezzo, and the strident colourings of Bax Symphony 7 made marvellous companion pieces.

Lady Evelyn Barbirolli's garden. Photo © Bill Newman
Lady Evelyn Barbirolli's garden. Photo © Bill Newman

While my hostess was preparing refreshments, my eyes quickly explored the garden area behind with its profusion of bamboos, shrub plantings, vegetable plot, overhead tendrils, and a statue centrally situated -- partly merging with the rear wall. Shades of Frances Hodgson Burnett, perhaps? On her return, I caught myself wondering why I had delayed my visit so long. Was there an oboe concerto, like Vaughan Williams in that cherished concert? 'Sorry -- I don't really remember!'

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Copyright © 26 December 2004 Bill Newman, Edgware UK


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