The Barbirolli Society and Testament are doing all historical collectors an inestimable service with the issue of Sir John's magnificent Mahler live performances with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Hot on the heels of Chailly's laudable Third, now comes Barbirolli in another magnificent 1969 recording although the sound does leave a lot to be desired especially when compared to previous issues in this series such as the lively sounding Second (Resurrection).
Barbirolli is expansive and majestic in the First Movement which lasts an almost staggering 36 minutes. One notices the level of intensity in the playing which is on another level whilst the power of the Berlin brass is quite impressive and radically different from the sometimes mannered sound produced by Karajan at those contemporaneous times. Both the 'Tempo di Minuetto' and the Scherzo are full of those felicitous details that make Barbirolli such a fine conductor in Mahler – indeed this is replicated in the other excellent account of the Third with the Hallé Orchestra recorded in 1966 (BBC Legends).
The shorter 'Sehr langsam, Misterioso' which has some angelic singing from the fabled St. Hedwig's Cathedral Choir is also quite beautifully done whilst the even shorter song from 'Des Knaben Wunderhorn' is lavished with intimate care by a conductor who has an uncanny instinct for his Mahler and with an in form Lucretia West who sings quite ravishingly despite the cavernous acoustics of the Philharmonie. Barbirolli is in his element in the final pilgrimage from this exhaustive symphony, the massive 'Ruhevoll' which is paced quite beautifully and culminates in an explosive climax of absolutely apocalyptic proportions. The feverish applause at the end is but a small rejoinder of the fantastic qualities of this symphony and of the gifted talents apportioned to 'Tita' by the dear Lord who definitely handpicked him as one of the greatest Mahlerians of the 20th century.
Finally, as a sort of addendum we have a relaxing and refreshing arrangement by Sir John titled 'Elizabethan Suite'. This is a collection of pieces by William Byrd, Giles Farnaby and John Bull arranged for string orchestra. The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra play lustily and Sir John is quite obviously in his element. The 1964 sound is much better than its later counterpart on disc but little will detract any self respecting Mahlerian who will not have his collection complete until this colossal Third is added to his/her shelf.
Copyright © 2004, Gerald Fenech