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CD Review

Barbirolli's Bruckner

BBC 4161
Hallé Orchestra/John Barbirolli
BBC Legends BBCL4161-2 79m ADD
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This generously filled disc brings together two extremely complimentary composers, if only for the fact that Bruckner was a strong admirer of Wagner and dedicated precisely the Third Symphony to the German Master, something which Wagner accepted with pleasure. This was in 1873, but by the time of the 1877 première, Bruckner had drastically revised the work, reducing the score by some 200 bars. It is this version that Barbirolli recorded at the Free Trade Hall, Manchester on 18th December 1964, and which is here presented in a rather boomy acoustic, but still clear and serviceable sound.

Sir John's admiration for Bruckner developed at a considerably late stage in his career, but from this version, it is clear that his enthusiasm quickly caught fire. His articulate phrasing and attention to detail are scrupulously observed, and the mastery he displays in the large soaring melodies is the fruit of a deep insight into this work. Dramatic tensions are kept tightly under control and are never allowed to spill over and spoil the innocent eloquence of this unjustly underrated symphony in the Bruckner canon. A taut but grand account of a work that satisfies on repeated hearings.

Wagner's Overture and Venusberg Music recorded at the same venue as the Bruckner symphony almost five years later left me rather unenthused. That vitality and vigour so evident in the Bruckner, are, alas, sadly missing here. In the beginning of the Overture, Sir John gives me the impression that he is dragging his feet slightly and the ensuing allegro, although excitingly done, still lacks that dramatic vein which can make it the tour-de-force that it really is.

The first part of the Venusberg Music is wildly passionate and is, to my mind, the only place where Barbirolli really gets under the skin of the music. The second part indeed has a sedate ending which has its sweet moments but misses altogether that sensuous emotionalism which is the core of the opening scene of the opera. Barbirolli recorded this piece at the end of a very hectic year and his health was rapidly deteriorating, reasons enough for an interpretation not as quintessentially Barbirollian as we are used to hear.

Nonetheless, a wonderful document to a master musician deeply loved and revered by audiences and players alike. Sound quality is variable but Lyndon Jenkins' notes are commendable. An important issue, not be missed, particularly by Sir John's many admirers.

Copyright © 2005, Gerald Fenech

Trumpet