on 12 June 2006
Two historic recordings from one of the greatest English conductors. Sir John Barbirolli is marvellous in both works. Made in 1960's, sound quality is very good, and performances are in high cult status.
Richard Strauss and his Ein Heldenleben recorded with London Symphony Orchestra. This gorgeous symphonic poem, as you know, is an autobiographical work of composer, so, The Hero (of course) is himself and his enemies are music critics (of course!).
This work was scored for large orchestra: quadruple woodwinds, 8 horns, 5 trumpets (2 E-flat, 3 B-flat), 3 trombones, 2 tubas, timpani, cymbals, snare drum, tenor drum, bass drum, 2 harps, strings. In other words: approx. 110 musicians...
The performance is excellent, the violin solo (imagine that Composer's Wife) is amazing and the solo of E-flat Trumpet (in 4th movement) is very good. THe War Scene is terrific, amazing. And, I think, the most impressive movement of this work is the last movement - The Retreat of Hero and his Death. In last seconds, there is a noble finale -crescendo to reach to Fortissimo and then a diminuendo to reach to Pianissimo- of all winds, which tells that, the last breath and the death with peace of mind.
Mahler's Sixth Symphony called "Tragic" recorded with New Philharmonia Orchestra. This performance is very majestic, not so flamboyant as Bernstein, but this reading is powerful and impressive. Real Mahlerians should have this recording, I think. Even so this symphony sounds like a sountrack of a horror film! As you know, Sixth Symphony is Mahler's most pessimist work and however written in his happiest years of his life (1904). Because, Mahler married to Alma Schindler, and they had a new girl, named Maria. Even so, this is a propethic work (!). Mahler, used hammer blows (in last movement) explains that his three Fate strokes which will to be in next years of his life. And these Fate strokes are: his daughter's sudden death in 1907 (at age 4!), his departure from Vienna Opera Court and his heart disease!... And then, the composer used cowbells in offstage, too. This explains that extreme loneliness and a mystic atmosphere. Even so, this is only symphony which finishes with dark atmosphere, not with a glory scene. And the last sudden exploding chord of music (in last seconds) usually scares me. The music finishes like a iron curtain falls in scene...
The 1st movement begins like a Nazi March! This "risoluto" and tragic opening continues with a apassionata "Alma" theme, so this movement has a full of drammatic atmosphere. The 2nd movement is played as Andante, as Mahler himself decided later to choice as 2nd movement, not as a Scherzo. The 3rd movement is Scherzo, and it is I think not a Scherzo, but a "Dance of Death", with devil's laughters, but in Trio section, describes the games of children, but in finish section there is a drammatic explosion and this game melody sounds now when goes away and dying in a whimper... The amazing Finale is the prophetic movement. It begins as a nightmare, and then continues with a heroic-tragic march. This march portraits the hero (Mahler), but then the three hammer blows, and then defeat and abandons himself to his doom...
This 2-CD set is marvellous. They are definitve readings and a must have for all Mahlerians and Straussians, and other music lovers.
on 2 March 2015
This magnificently performed and recorded Mahler 6 is so good that it is addictive, despite the slow and rather heavy-footed tempo in the first 3 movements. Yet the night before these recording sessions took place Barbirolli and the orchestra played the work live at a tempo some 12% faster (about 74 mins vs 84 mins). It is unclear why he wanted to go so much slower in the recording sessions, perhaps to bring out the rich detail, which is captured here like in no other. Whatever the reason, most distinguished commentators, including the great Deryck Cooke and Tony Duggan, believe that he over-did it in the sessions. Fortunately, through the wonders of digital recordings and software (try audacity), it is easy to correct this by "re-recording" the symphony at a slightly quicker tempo without affecting the pitch. I personally have settled on a 6% increase. This makes sense since it is half-way towards the speed Barbirolli adopted the previous evening in concert (19, 14, 12, 29). It retains all the essential detail elements, takes out the "dragging" effect, and gives the music a distinct "lift". The +6% recording comes in at a little under 80 minutes (20, 15, 13, 31) compared with the original 84 minutes (21, 16, 14, 33) and then fits onto a single CD. The first movement is still slower than average, so a key characteristic of Barbirolli's view on the day is still apparent.
There are two other elements of this performance worth noting. Barbirolli preferred Andante-Scherzo to Scherzo-Andante, which was out of step with most other conductors and recordings at the time. Of course, the new critical edition supports Andante-Scherzo as the way Mahler wanted it at the time he brought the work to performance. Barbirolli gave the reason as not wanting to follow the slow Andante with the slow opening of the 4th movement. Perhaps Mahler thought likewise, although his reasons for switching once on the podium are not recorded. Barbirolli omits the long (about 5 minutes) first movement exposition repeat. Personally, I find this a benefit since this material can become repetitive on the many repeated hearings that we can now enjoy. The movement makes perfect sense without the repeat and the greater forward movement sounds more like the Mahler of all his other works.
In summary this performance shows Glorious John at his insightful and dazzling best. I can't begin to analyse or understand why under his control the music seems to breath more than with anyone else, but it certainly does. To my ears, a slight speed increase does wonders and makes it perfect. I would not dare to suggest that this is the greatest or only performance of this intriguing work that you should own. That choice will vary from listener to listener and probably from mood to mood. What I would say quite emphatically is that anyone who loves Mahler's music should own a copy. The cheaper download with the original Metamorphosen is sufficient if you intend to re-record as I have. Some addictions should not be avoided.
There is no doubt of the standing of Sir John Barbirolli, 1899-1970, amongst the leading conductors of the last century. On this 2CD set he conducts Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben with the London Symphony Orchestra, recorded at the No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road, in 1969, and Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, recorded two years earlier in the Kingsway Hall with the New Philharmonic Orchestra.
The first CD, tt 72’04, contains the Strauss tone poem and the opening movement of the symphony with the remaining three movements following on the second CD, tt 62’49. The brochure note by Ewan West refers to the fact that, on the original LP, the Scherzo was placed before the Andante but the reissue of the CD has reordered the Andante [now second] and Scherzo [third] in accordance with the conductor’s preference.
Whilst both performances are well worthwhile acquiring, it is the Mahler that makes this CD such engrossing listening. The tempi are unhurried, with that of the opening Allegro energico particularly so. Following the Strauss this makes the first CD somewhat of a lingering experience. However, Barbirolli moulds the symphonic score into a whole that is convincing on its own terms with the ‘hammer blows of fate’ in the final movement rarely making such an impression. The tragedy and suffering that pervades the work is pointed out but one feels that the performance is touched too much by the melodramatic, magnificent though it is. This performance ranks just below that of Horenstein and, perhaps, Bernstein although I have never really warmed to the latter conductor’s approach.
The Strauss is much admired by many but I find it rather laboured. At 50’34 it is over six minutes longer than that of Rudolf Kempe and the Staatskapelle Dresden from 1974, my reference recording. The playing is exemplary and Barbirolli again has a coherent vision that links the six sections, but it just fails to touch me in the way that Kempe does. There I need a period of silence to retune to everyday life, but here I do not feel this emotional charge. The soloist may be John Georgiadis. Barbirolli, himself never amenable to criticism, makes Strauss’s critics attack with exceptional force. The balance and the recording are first class and this is particularly evident in the references to the composer’s tone poems, songs and the opera, Guntram.
The sound is very good for the time and the remastering in 1996 provides a warm and supportive ambience. The text describes the two works that were from the same fin-de-siècle period [Strauss 1899; Mahler 1903/4] but says nothing about the conductor’s approach to these works. Originally the Mahler was released on LP with Strauss’s Metamorphosen, but I have not had the opportunity to hear this work. Strauss 7/10, Mahler 9/10; overall 8/10.