These recordings were made between 1966 and 1970; Symphony #6 was recorded in May 1970, just two months before Sir John Barbirolli's death. These have been favorite recordings for many collectors since their first LP release. It must be said, however, that there's never been a great deal of agreement as to how good they really are, objectively speaking. The Hallé Orchestra's wiry string tone frequently is criticized, and it's difficult to make the claim that all of the orchestral timbres are first class; wind solos are more often characterful than ideally polished. Barbirolli and his producers (Christopher Bishop, Victor Olof, and Ronald Kinloch Anderson) were not sticklers for perfection, and while the Hallé's playing is only infrequently ragged, it hardly can be described as well-drilled. Another drawback, now in the past, has been the quality of the recorded sound. I have owned EMI Phoenixa and Classics for Pleasure CD remasterings of some of these recordings, and at their clattery and midrange-starved worst, they sold Barbirolli's Sibelius short.
It is a pleasure, then, to report that these new digital remasterings, completed in 1999 in London's Abbey Road Studios, have brought these recordings back into a flattering light. They're well balanced and not inferior to other major-label recordings made in the second half in the 1960s. No one should shy away from this set for fear that they will find the engineering unacceptable.
Barbirolli's conducting is wonderful. Although one may prefer individual recordings of these works by this conductor or that, this set, taken as a whole, holds up to the competition extremely well. Barbirolli conducts with passion, and he taps into each work's elemental power. He appreciates what makes Sibelius's music unique, and what makes each symphony different from the one that came before. There are few conductors who are equally successful conveying the haunted disillusion of the Fourth Symphony and the nature-driven exhilaration of the Fifth, for example.
There are less expensive ways to acquire a Sibelius symphony cycle. Lorin Maazel and Sir Colin Davis, both excellent in their own way, are on three and four discs, respectively. Barbirolli's 5-CD set contains many more of the shorter pieces, however, and in consistently treasurable performances. (The conductor's groaning during "The Swan of Tuonela" is a minor setback, though.) It is regrettable that there was no stereo recording of the Violin Concerto to include, but one can't have everything. Even with that gap, these discs constitute a Sibelius collection that can be recommended to just about any music-lover. I am grateful to EMI for reissuing them.
Copyright © 2000, Raymond Tuttle