A lifelong advocate of English music, London-born John Barbirolli (1899-1970) here conducts music of English composers -- Edward Elgar's concert overture In the South, William Walton's Partita for Orchestra, and two works by Benjamin Britten, Sinfonia de Requiem and The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra Op. 34. The first three were recorded in concerts in the Royal Albert Hall circa 1970, 1969 and 1967, respectively, with Britten's guide recorded in the studio in 1967. The first two were recorded in stereo, the other two in mono.
Elgar's concert overture was written after he took holiday on the Italian riviera. It depicts musical pictures of Rome and the Mediterranean with sunny moods sandwiched between a boisterous opening and close. Barbirolli conducted the first English performance of Walton's 1957 composition, built on demand from George Szell, the next year. He was an admirer of the composer and naturally took to Walton's witty and happy three movement partita. The crowd lets you know at the end they liked what he had to say about it.
Barbirolli's acquaintance with Britten's music started in 1940 when he conducted the New York Philharmonic. The sinfonia presents a much different mood than the Walton -- sombre and serious -- and Barbirolli conducts it slowly, even monumentally, compared to the composer Britten Conducts Britten [Box Set] and his New York recording Benjamin Britten: Les Illuminations; Sinfonia da Requiem; Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo. The composer wrote it to mark 2,600 years of the Japanese empire although Michael Kennedy's note suggest it is also about the composer's parents. Some upbringing he must have had if so! The final work, Britten's playful yet inquiring retelling of the orchestra is a training piece to match St. Saens' Carnival of the Animals and Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf without the narration.
For such an astute and dedicated Elgarian, it seems incredible this is Sir John's only recording of In the South. His way with it is similar to his approach to the composer -- full-throated, full bore and full charge ahead. With the exception of the inimitable Walton partita, this characterizes Barbirolli's way with the Britten compositions. He portrays them as larger than life, playing the variations on a theme of Purcell (guide to the orchestra) as more theme, fugue and variations than instructional guide.
The sound for the concert performances is extraordinary considering the venue -- resonant and focused with little intrusion from the crowds.The mono sinfonia is exceptional; I though surely it was early stereo when I listened with headphones. I don't know what 20-24 bit processing is but it worked here. The studio recording of Britten's most popular work lacks the same presence and depth. You hear everything but it's a more distant and a little fuzzy.
While this concert may not capture the heart of the general classical music listener, it provides a keepsake for fans of the conductor or those that enjoy English music. This is a nicely balanced concert of Barbirolli specialties that vary in emotional appeal from rapture to joyfulness to darkness to nobility. If you enjoy anything listed here and you don't require audiophile recording, chances are you'll enjoy this. For English music fans, it is probably a must have disk.