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For the symphonies - four out of seven
on 25 April 2011
There is much that is good in this set, but there are three things at least to take on board at the outset. Firstly, the recording quality is a tad variable; secondly, Barbirolli has a penchant for unnecessarily trenchant string openings; thirdly, his view of all these works is heroic/dramatic. The Second Symphony shows conductor and orchestra on top form. The excitement arises from the music itself rather than its interpretation: nothing is overdone or pulled around and the performance is as uplifting as you could wish for. Likewise, the Fifth is a terrifically energetic reading and another undoubted high spot. The speed of the finale seems right to me: it is measured but not as slow as, for instance, Sergiu Celibidache's version with the Swedish Radio SO on Deutsche Grammophon (way beyond two standard deviations of the norm). The end of the first movement is tremendously exciting, and there is a vital sense throughout of forward propulsion, particularly important in this symphony where in passive hands the middle can sag.
On the other hand, for me the Third really won't do at all. Barbirolli seems not to have registered that the musical focus has shifted and that this symphony is about nature, not drama - it is closer to the Sixth than the Second. He loads it with an unfortunate portentousness and each of its three movements is slower than the music can bear. This is worst in the second subject of the first movement and the whole of the second, where there is nothing "con moto" or "quasi allegretto" about the andantino. In the finale, Barbirolli signally fails to act on the instruction "con energia" when the pendulum-like final tune appears on strings, and this is emblematic of the performance as a whole. Much the same criticisms can be levelled at the Sixth. The start of the finale is so rough and insensitive it makes you wince. Later on, there is no allowance for relaxation and the strings are annoyingly choppy. Nor is it just about speed - Neeme Järvi and the Gothenburg SO are about the same, Rattle and the CBSO (my favourite) more measured - it is more that it is all rather perfunctory. One gets the impression everyone is glad to get it over with.
The First Symphony is rather unremitting. The recording makes for uncomfortable listening: the woodwind are too closely miked and brought so far forward they sound in front of the strings (a recurrent feature, though one does get used to it). The cellos are distinctly underweight and the strings as a whole scratchy; once the arresting opening is over they also have a tendency to scrappiness. The slow movement drags: the strings are choppy and the raspy cellos unpleasant on the ear. After a sparky scherzo the emotion is laid on with a trowel in the finale, particularly at the end. Influenced by Tchaikovsky the young Sibelius may have been, but he was not about to turn into him: Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia on Decca still get the Russian influence here - perhaps more Borodin than Tchaikovsky, in fact - but are cleaner and, well, more Sibelian.
Conversely, Barbirolli's Fourth I actually like a lot. It is not as chilly an interpretation as many, where the temperature is not the cold of the Finnish winter but of austerity and pessimism, and the warmer quality makes it for me more accessible. Where some conjure up just a cold landscape, here one senses a person in a cold landscape. This is not to say that it loses anything in drama - the climax of the slow movement has a Brucknerian quality - but a hint of thaw is welcome in this wintry work. Again, there is a lack of subtlety from the strings, whose Tapiola-like tremolandi in the first movement are threatening but not initially pianissimo, and the woodwind soloists are not heard clearly above them. The Fourth is, however, both better played and better recorded than the First, with which it shares a disc. Finally, Barbirolli's Seventh shares the immediacy and propulsion of the Second and Fifth. Rattle/CBSO (Decca, 1987) is still my favourite: this performance has a tremendous cumulative power and is better recorded than Colin Davis/Boston SO (Philips, 1975), which tends to blare, and the three occurrences of the C major trombone theme feel genuinely monolithic, like Stonehenge or a Rothko. Barbirolli, though, is well-paced and exciting, the repeated trombone theme noble and cathartic; and though (again) the woodwind is unduly prominent (coarse oboes and spotlit flutes) and the string tone unpleasantly raspy in places, it is performance I feel I will return to.
Sound quality throughout is average to good, though the largely unblendable oboes are either piquant or acidic depending on your point of view, and the lower strings can definitely sound rough (the First and Seventh Symphonies, for instance). Having pointed out the less felicitous performances where I think they exist, however, one can't lose sight of the fact that this five disc set retails at only £14 - for the cost of a single full-price CD you are getting performances of some symphonies (2, 4, 5 and 7) that will give you much pleasure on repeated hearings, some more discussable versions of others, and a whole lot of other stuff which at its best is as desirable as the best of the symphonic works. Just be prepared to look further afield for the rest.