Music and Vision homepage Jenna Orkin: Writer Wannabe Seeks Brush With Death - From the heights of greatness (the Juilliard School; musicians Rosalyn Tureck and Nadia Boulanger) via way-ward paths to the depths of wickedness these reminiscences will entertain and enlighten.


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I am trying to rate you in competition with other lady oboists of your time. To me, it seemed that your playing stood out. 'I suppose it did in the profession, really.' It compared with your teacher Leon Goossens, although as Michael Kennedy points out he would advise rather than teach the instrument. 'Yes; he didn't teach at all. He didn't attempt to and never wanted to. There was that time during College term when he put the dot in the book on the first day. Then he filled in the rest of the dots, and returned on the last day!' Didn't he undo the way you played at the start? 'No, I did that myself. He never gave me any help at all. He said it was wrong, and I had to put the oboe up a bit. So I raised it higher, and this removed it from the embouchure. But when it came to the instrument itself, there was no advice on reeds we should use. Basically, I don't think he knew how to teach.'

Once the technique is mastered, many of today's youngsters are literally thrown in the deep end to perform without any real ideas of how to interpret the music. But nobody actually criticizes them. 'Although I don't do it now, in my time I have done a lot of adjudicating. So many of them are the same. They all play well; so much better than I did when I was their age, with far more technical command. Yet, the music gets lost on the way up.' They lack a singing tone. 'That's because they are running about all the time. So, when on the jury I always went for the one with most musicality. But it's all so impersonal -- it might be anybody playing.'

That is a valid point. The Czech conductors Libor Pesek and Petr Altrichter said this to me during interviews at Liverpool. They blamed recordings for smoothing out the impurities and enhancing the sound by digital processing. The Cleveland Orchestra under Szell at the Edinburgh Festival sounded more rich toned and musical than on Sony Records. Manager Howard Harrington agreed, at the same time laughing at my amazed expression. 'Are recording techniques better now? I love many of the remastered recordings, particularly those by Michael J Dutton. I am full of admiration -- he does everything, and he is so musical!'

We talked about high retail prices for new recordings, and sales price slashing at retail stores during certain periods. 'Mahler 2 with John conducting the Berlin Philharmonic only costs 10 pounds (or, is it 9?) if you belong to The Barbirolli Society.' The Testament recording. You should have told me! (much laughter). 'I haven't heard it, yet.'

The transition between you becoming a celebrated oboist, with important engagements and performing works written for you -- then meeting John and falling in love ... how fast did this happen? 'Well, we fell for each other during the time we were going out together. During the middle of the Scottish Orchestra season, I was still First Oboe when he went on to New York.' Was he easy to get on with? 'Terribly easy, he was a very sweet man and was never difficult, wanting me to play and always encouraging me.' The two Dutton CDs of German and Italian Concerti which include Sir John's arrangements for Evelyn Barbirolli are on CDSJB1009 and 1016 respectively.

You formed a protective barrier, that stabilising factor in his professional life. 'Of course, he had a hell of a time in New York with the press. It was nothing to do with him and, as you probably know, they went gunning for Arthur Judson. We both liked him. He appointed John -- he was his baby. Lawrence Gilman, who wrote beautifully about John, died, and Olin Downes was doing the commentaries for the Sunday Concert broadcasts throughout the country. He was very well paid, and it was a prestigious job. For some reason that we never found out, Judson sacked him, and in return Downes took his revenge on John. What I shall never know the truth about is why Judson got rid of Downes. Downes was furious, of course, but how is it possible that Judson didn't have more sense?'

All this talk about the jealousies of Toscanini and Beecham. 'Well Beecham, no. That was genuine. To write to everybody connected with the New York Phil -- that was a filthy trick. I never forgave him for that. Beecham wanted to conduct the Hallé, but John said that he could bring his own orchestra to Manchester -- which he did -- adding that he couldn't allow Beecham to conduct his Hallé.'

It was Sargent, of course, who kept the Hallé flag flying during the war years. 'Yes, Sargent always behaved extremely well.' But he later became the subject of Beecham's barbed wit. 'I am not surprised -- he probably deserved a lot of it. But you couldn't fault Sargent. He did conduct the Hallé quite well. There was nothing he ever said or did for John that was anything but pleasant'.

Listening to Barbirolli-Testament live performances on recently released compact discs, brings out differing responses. Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem is quite outstanding with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, but their Dvorák Symphony 7, despite the excellence of the interpretation, suffers from odd lapses in ensemble playing. A Dutch critic quoted the players' lack of understanding over Barbirolli's beat, despite their appreciation of his Old World greatness in musical terms.

Mahler Symphonies 2 and 6 -- 'No 9 is the great one' -- with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra are both magnificent, but I look back to a Sir Henry Wood Proms performance of No 6 with the Hallé that featured every conceivable nuance, and hair-pin changes of mood, especially in the two inner movements. The Philharmonia performance the following year -- followed by a commercial EMI recording -- may have been technically more secure, but it wasn't half so musical. It is often stated that Barbirolli with his own orchestra was unbeatable. 'This is certainly true. Other British orchestras did not spend so much time with him -- perhaps one or two rehearsals, and that was it. The Berlin Philharmonic adored him.'

One particular Bruckner Symphony 9 performance with the Hallé at London's Royal Festival Hall was the slowest (some 70-75 minutes) I have ever heard ... 'And the Brahms Symphonies recordings with the Vienna Philharmonic for EMI were done late on.' What about his bouts of depression? 'Those, he has always had. It is inherited -- his uncle had it, his grandfather, his sister, a nephew all had it. I asked doctors about it. It could be heriditary -- at least it was with John. Always suffering from it, it got worse as he got older.'

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Copyright © 26 December 2004 Bill Newman, Edgware UK


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