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CD Review

Heroic Symphonies

New Philharmonia Orchestra/John Barbirolli
* London Symphony Orchestra/John Barbirolli
EMI Forte 69349 2CD
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First, it is the New Philharmonia, not the Philharmonic, as printed on the outside case of the 2 CD package. Second, this issue differs from previous EMI set in a few significant ways. On one hand, it restores the order of the movements that Barbirolli preferred (with the Scherzo following the Andante). Furthermore, if you don't want that you can program it the other way. On the previous release the Andante ended disc one and the Scherzo started disc two. Also, the coupling differs, the previous set included Strauss' Metamorphosen. Finally, there is a significant difference in the mastering. The current issue's sound is warmer, fuller and has more perspective.

Let me say at the outset, this set is worth the investment just to hear the Strauss. This is one of the finest recordings ever. I place it alongside Beecham's, which is my other favorite. I'd not heard the Barbirolli before this and was blown away.

Now, the Mahler 6th is a bit of a tougher nut. Not only is the couplin on this disc apt, it is also a bit ironic that the two composer's pictures face one another on the back of the insert notes. The reason for saying this is that Barbirolli's interpretation is so very Straussian that it is weird. This is so primarily in the first two movements, but still present somewhat in the last two as well. I had always sensed some Strauss in Mahler, but Barbirolli really brings it out. The result is a recording where the beautiful passages are unsurpassed by anyone. On the other hand, it does tend to sound too much like Strauss, especially in the more dramatic passages. This is not necessarily bad.

Here, at least in this draft, are my brain-storming notes: I come to reviewing this symphony after having not listened to it in some years. This was because the last time I listened to this symphony (and it was this performance/recording) I found the experience so emotionally draining that I wanted some time off. (Okay, the twins will soon turn four and I haven't had a block of time for listening to Mahler in that long) Anyway, in the interim I have grown in my appreciation of classical music, most recently enjoying the insights of Martinů, Janáček, and Bartók. So, the first thing I noticed on listening to this again, is that it no longer feels so desolate. Of course, you must hear Bernstein, but his first movement is so fast that it seems more like a parody of the music (maybe it is?). Still, I like this Barbirolli…I can imagine myself returning to it more often than Bernstein. You know, what it is is that I prefer Barbirolli's pace but would like the added twists and sharper attacks I hear in Bernstein; and then there is the Horenstein recording. He gets it all right, but the sound soon wears on the ears, some of that digital edge at play here. If I could have the best of both worlds it would be the Barbirolli/EMI sound and Horenstein conducting. So it goes. Then, too, Strauss-or-not, the second movement of Barbirolli's interpretation is one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard. It is in the 3rd movement that Barbirolli starts to move away from a Straussian interpretation. Then, in the fourth movement Barbirolli really puts his stamp on the interpretation, imbuing it with more Mahlerian bite In fact, I wrote that it is worth the whole symphony to listen to Barbirolli's interpretation of the final movement. The sound, here, is particularly spectacular. There is warmth and depth of perspective. The soaring thud of the hammer blows (three) will vibrate your floors if played loud enough. On my initial listening I had to pause between each movement so I could absorb it better. Then, the next day, I listened to it in toto and after listening to the final notes, I listened to nothing else that night. Yes, I can imagine myself returning to the Barbirolli again and again…in fact, I think I'll do just that right now.

Copyright © 1997, Robert Stumpf II