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CD Review

Barbirolli Conducts

Heather Harper, soprano
BBC Symphony Orchestra/John Barbirolli
BBC Legends BBCL4014-2 ADD 68:49
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Barbirolli never recorded Mahler's Fourth in the studio, but this is the next best thing – maybe even better, given the wonderful qualities of this performance. It was made in Prague's Smetana Hall on January 3, 1967, while the BBC Symphony Orchestra was on an Eastern European tour. (Barbirolli and Pierre Boulez shared conducting duties on that tour.) The recording is in genuine stereo, and sonically, it is comparable to anything being done in the studios at that time. Whether this is a function of its intrinsic qualities or the 20-bit digital remastering I can't say, but I can say that the sound is terrific, and no allowances need to be made at all.

As for the performance, it is revelatory. Barbirolli conducts one of the most complete Mahler Fourths I've ever heard. He finds the melting tenderness and the mordant irony implied in the pages of Mahler's score. So many turns of phrase are done with such delicious skill that one cannot help thinking that one is in heaven; this is the kind of music-making that puts a happy smile on my face. With Mahler, things are seldom as they seem, and the Fourth's innocence is fully realized… but so are the shadows in the corners. In some recordings, it is difficult to tell whether the composer's prescribed scordatura violin is even being used in the second movement. Here, it is apparent from the first note, and the effect is chilling – surely that is what Mahler had in mind. Barbirolli conducts flexibly throughout, but particularly so in the third movement, where he follows his instincts to good effect. Truth be told, some people will find Barbirolli too fussy in the first and third movements. They have my sympathies.

Two minor caveats: Heather Harper needs to work hard in the fourth movement to sound childlike, but her intelligence and healthy voice compensate for her voice's relative maturity. Also, because this is live performance, there are bobbled notes and moments of imperfect ensemble (for example, right at the start of the symphony). None of these things interfered with my enjoyment of a marvelous Mahler Fourth.

The disc closes with a performance of Berlioz's Corsaire overture from the same concert. Barbirolli plays it in a leisurely manner; certainly many a conductor has executed the opening gesture with more verve. Nevertheless, Barbirolli shapes the entire overture with care, and in the end, one can accept this as a fine performance, although not as magical as the Mahler, and not as individual as some of Barbirolli's other Berlioz performances.

Copyright © 1999, Raymond Tuttle