He Wasn’t Toscanini, but He Made Orchestras Sing

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lennygoran
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He Wasn’t Toscanini, but He Made Orchestras Sing

Post by lennygoran » Fri Aug 14, 2020 7:53 am

Lots of audio clips if you can get to the site. Regards, Len

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He Wasn’t Toscanini, but He Made Orchestras Sing

New box sets continue the debate over John Barbirolli, the New York Philharmonic’s music director from 1937 to ’42.

John Barbirolli remains a beloved figure in England, but is less known in the United States.Credit...Cecil Beaton/Condé Nast, via Getty Images

By David Allen

Aug. 13, 2020

“He drove the orchestra hard whenever there was a shadow of an excuse for doing it.”

“He has evidently some of the defects of his virtues.”

“The orchestra quickly and appallingly retrograded in its discipline and its technical quality, while reviewers became positively embarrassed to record the level of mediocrity, or worse, in the performances.”

This is just a sampling of the grim verdicts that Olin Downes of The New York Times delivered on John Barbirolli when that young and little known Englishman had the unenviable task, from 1937 to 1942, of following the epochal Arturo Toscanini as music director of the New York Philharmonic.

Perhaps Virgil Thomson, of The New York Herald Tribune, was more receptive?

“Mr. Barbirolli is a Latin out of his natural water; perhaps, too, just a little over his head.”

“The best birthday present the Philharmonic could offer itself and us would be a good permanent full-time conductor, somebody worthy of the job.”

Perhaps not. Barbirolli, a Cockney of French and Italian parentage who died 50 years ago this month, remains a cult figure in England, but he is perhaps best known in the United States for what he was not.
ImageBarbirolli, here conducting the Hallé Orchestra in 1953, spent months learning scores before rehearsing them for nine hours a day, tempers flaring.
Barbirolli, here conducting the Hallé Orchestra in 1953, spent months learning scores before rehearsing them for nine hours a day, tempers flaring.Credit...Bert Hardy/Picture Post, via Hulton Archive, via Getty Images

Not Toscanini, that’s for sure. And not Wilhelm Furtwängler, the German visionary who, in 1936, accepted the Philharmonic’s podium, then declined it after protests about his relationship with the Nazi party. Not Leopold Stokowski of the Philadelphia Orchestra, nor Serge Koussevitzky of the Boston Symphony. Barbirolli has been perceived as not much at all, really — just another one of the Philharmonic conductors, often overlooked today, who came between Toscanini and, in the late ’50s, Leonard Bernstein.

Two new box sets offer a welcome opportunity to reassess. One, from Warner Classics, piles up 109 CDs — starting in 1928, with a chamber group chugging through some Haydn, and ending in 1970, with Barbirolli, days from death, lavishing care over Delius at the helm of the Hallé, the orchestra in Manchester, England, that he had saved in 1943.


What you will not hear, one concerto aside, is the New York Philharmonic. For that, you must turn to Sony Classical, and six discs of RCA and Columbia recordings that were boxed up earlier this year.


“They either adore me or I nauseate them,” Barbirolli said of his listeners, and it’s easy to hear why. Here was a conductor with a singular style, harking back to the days of the Romantics, late and later, whom he loved to perform. Details mattered to him, as did a sense of the whole, but he was never bothered by scrappiness or slips; what counted was the sound, the spirit of a composer, and he would stop at nothing to capture it.


He was a depressive workaholic who stayed up late into the night marking up scores, learning them for months before rehearsing them for nine hours a day, tempers flaring. He was a brilliant cellist, and he could make his string sections sing like no one else, drawing out the longest of lines with the fullest of bows, swooping from note to note in defiance of all fashion. What he conducted, he conducted with heart. You either get him, or you don’t.

Giovanni Barbirolli — Tita, to his intimates — was born in music, in the dying weeks of the 19th century. His father and grandfather were professional violinists, but Tita took up the cello, attending conservatory at 10 and performing in orchestras from 16. After service in World War I, during which he first took the podium in concert, he split his time as a cellist and conductor, starting a chamber orchestra and cutting his teeth on operas. His break came in 1927, covering for a Thomas Beecham concert with the London Symphony. One critic called it “astonishing” but chided him for “sentimentalizing,” even “violating,” Elgar’s Second Symphony. It would become a familiar indictment, but an HMV record executive decided to sign him that night.


On record, Barbirolli was initially known as an accompanist, his strings curling a halo around the pianist Arthur Rubinstein in Mozart, his virtuosity matching the violinist Jascha Heifetz’s in Tchaikovsky.
Mozart, Piano Concerto No. 23, Allegro
Arthur Rubinstein and London Symphony Orchestra, 1931 (Warner Classics)

Carried by soloists like these, word of his promise reached the Philharmonic’s boss, Arthur Judson, who thought for a while of offering Barbirolli a week or two of guest conducting. But with the Furtwängler debacle raw, Judson sent a surprising telegram in April 1936, offering a full third of the 1936-37 season to this lowly director of Glasgow’s Scottish Orchestra, overnight making him Toscanini’s presumed successor. Barbirolli was shocked; the British press was baffled, and not a little afraid.

The stakes became clear as Barbirolli stepped ashore in America. Reporters startled him, asking how it felt to follow Toscanini.

“I do not intend to follow in the maestro’s footsteps,” he said carefully. “No one can do that.”

Barbirolli was as awed as anybody. His father and grandfather had played with Toscanini, including in the orchestra in the 1887 premiere of Verdi’s “Otello,” which the great man remembered when they met. Barbirolli had attended Toscanini’s rehearsals and concerts in London for years, emerging spellbound and writing that the Italian conductor “radiates something very pure and noble.”

But they were opposites in style. Toscanini’s conducting was lean, driven by rhythm; Barbirolli’s was lush, driven by lyricism. “I look for warmth and ‘cantabile’ and a working atmosphere where men play beyond the call of duty,” the younger man said.


Barbirolli initially won over the Philharmonic’s musicians and its audience, earning a contract for three years, then another two. The press was curious, too, at first. But when Toscanini returned to New York to lead the new NBC Symphony, during Barbirolli’s first full season, 1937-38, the honeymoon ended. Downes, of The Times, soured, savaging Barbirolli’s talents and tastes, using a performance of Elgar’s Second — perhaps this conductor’s favorite work — to wonder “at anyone professing to take this symphony seriously today.” While Toscanini held court with socialites, Barbirolli refused to get involved in New York high society, and attendance soon began to dip.



When World War II was underway, Barbirolli was unwilling to take American citizenship to satisfy union rules, and was sick for his home country. He let his Philharmonic contract end with the 1941-42 season, remaining in the United States and making guest appearances the following year only because the wartime voyage across the Atlantic was so perilous. He would not come back to the Philharmonic until 1959.



Barbirolli fled for Manchester in June 1943, scarred but still ambitious. The Hallé today is an impeccably refined instrument, but when he arrived, this oldest permanent symphony in England barely existed, only 39 players strong. He hired half an orchestra in a month, much of it inexperienced, and rehearsed in an abandoned schoolroom. Because of the war, a third of the players were female, and he refused to fire them when the men returned after fighting.



With their Free Trade Hall bombed out until 1951, they played in whatever halls they could find across the north of England, and on Sundays at Belle Vue, a Manchester circus seating 6,000, with a zoo audible next door. The sensation was immediate, the bonds forged to last.

Warner’s remastering could be better, but there are revelations from this period: The slow movement of Vaughan Williams’s Fifth, recorded shortly after its 1943 premiere, practically levitates; the ball bewitches in a fun “Symphonie Fantastique” from 1947.


Offers immediately came for Barbirolli’s services, first from the London Symphony and then the BBC, but he stayed dedicated to the Hallé, even as his dreadfully paid players often did not. He took on more guest conducting after 1958, and even a second post at the Houston Symphony between 1961 and 1967, but he would spend most of the rest of his life training and retraining the Manchester orchestra.

There’s a certain “what if” quality about the final decades of Barbirolli’s career, then — one made all the more haunting by the success of some of his later recordings with other orchestras, which benefited from EMI technology that the Hallé rarely had access to on its mass-market labels. Barbirolli didn’t get on with the Vienna Philharmonic, and their Brahms cycle shows it, but he enthralled the Berlin Philharmonic, leading a devastating Mahler Ninth in 1964. His Mahler with the New Philharmonia Orchestra — a Fifth from 1969 and a controversially broad Sixth from 1967 — is convincing, and orchestras in the British capital served him well: the BBC Symphony in a steadfast Beethoven “Eroica” and the London Symphony in a grand, glistening “Tintagel,” by Arnold Bax.



Tolerate the imperfections in playing and production, though, and there is still a special spirit in the records Barbirolli made with the Hallé. Especially the earlier ones: Schubert’s Ninth and Vaughan Williams’s “A London Symphony” have more flair in their 1950s takes than in ones from the ’60s, and Viennese bonbons from Lehar and the Strausses have an extra sprinkling of sugar. Compare the mezzo-soprano Janet Baker’s two accounts of Mahler’s “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen”: The eyes dampen from the New Philharmonia (1969) but weep from the Hallé (1967).


And then there is his Elgar, which has the authority of tradition: Barbirolli played under Elgar at the premiere of his Cello Concerto, and elsewhere. He helped Jacqueline du Pré make that concerto famous in a classic recording, but also brought conviction to works like the “Cockaigne Overture” (recorded three times, with the love of a born Londoner), the “Introduction and Allegro” (a trifle that Barbirolli turned into a masterpiece six times on record) and even the “Elegy,” short and sentimental.


He was happy to let Elgar’s grandeur shine, but at his finest, like two accounts of the Second Symphony with the Hallé, Barbirolli embraced this composer’s insecurities — conquering them, like he conquered his own, with a palpable and moving sense of sorrow and regret.

Plenty, in other words, to prove Olin Downes wrong.


https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/13/arts ... monic.html

maestrob
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Re: He Wasn’t Toscanini, but He Made Orchestras Sing

Post by maestrob » Fri Aug 14, 2020 8:58 am

Very interesting take on Barbirolli, Len, thanks for posting!

At his best, and I have most of those on CD, Barbirolli achieved great magic. His Vaughan-Williams is more atmospheric than Boult, for example, and there is a fiery Nielsen IV with the Halle that Warner now holds the rights to that beats all comers, including Bernstein. His Mahler & Elgar recordings with Dame Janet are also deeply moving, as is his Butterfly with Scotto, one of that singer's best recorded performances.

I hope these boxes enhance his reputation.

slofstra
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Re: He Wasn’t Toscanini, but He Made Orchestras Sing

Post by slofstra » Sat Aug 15, 2020 1:27 pm

I won't be getting this set, but I thought about it quite seriously. The main reason in favour of purchase is that I'm very much interested in the early 20th century British school (actually, all early 20th C music) and there's a reasonable dollop of this music in this set.
I quite enjoyed listening to some of these selections.
The only one I absolutely disliked was the Allegro from Brahms' Second Symphony. It doesn't sound very good in 'presto'.
On the other hand, I loved this rendition of the finale of Beethoven's 5th. I love to hear an orchestra, for lack of a better term, go nuts on this movement. One of my favourite renditions of this movement is Rattle with the Wiener and I now wonder if he took his inspiration from Barbirolli.
The 'Sea Pictures' has long been one of my favourite recordings and the other Baker selection of Berlioz op. 7 is also excellent.
At this moment I'm listening to the finale of Mahler's first, and this doesn't make the grade for me. The effect is like the score of one of those dramatic World War II pictures. Just too many rough edges.
I can well understand the interest in this set, though. Many unique performances and historically important recordings as well.

CharmNewton
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Re: He Wasn’t Toscanini, but He Made Orchestras Sing

Post by CharmNewton » Sat Aug 15, 2020 11:50 pm

I've been listening to several large scale works from the Sony Barbirolli box (Brahms 2, Sibelius 1 & 2, and some Baroque suites) and find the playing and readings dull. The set wasn't helped by airless sound which led to some wooden phrasing. Sibelius 2 was probably the best of the group. Sibelius 1 impresses as a bold and original work, just routine sounding here.
A professor once told me that the N.Y. Philharmonic had the best personnel because it was New York but I'm beginning to feel that the orchestra of the 1940s and 1950s was one in decline until the arrival of Bernstein and later Boulez. So perhaps it isn't just Barbirolli.
BTW, Toscanini was retired but still with us in the mid-1950s. It's unfortunate that RCA couldn't bring Reimer's CSO to New York and make a few stereo recordings with the Maestro.
John

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Re: He Wasn’t Toscanini, but He Made Orchestras Sing

Post by slofstra » Sun Aug 16, 2020 3:02 pm

CharmNewton wrote:
Sat Aug 15, 2020 11:50 pm
I've been listening to several large scale works from the Sony Barbirolli box (Brahms 2, Sibelius 1 & 2, and some Baroque suites) and find the playing and readings dull. The set wasn't helped by airless sound which led to some wooden phrasing. Sibelius 2 was probably the best of the group. Sibelius 1 impresses as a bold and original work, just routine sounding here.
A professor once told me that the N.Y. Philharmonic had the best personnel because it was New York but I'm beginning to feel that the orchestra of the 1940s and 1950s was one in decline until the arrival of Bernstein and later Boulez. So perhaps it isn't just Barbirolli.
BTW, Toscanini was retired but still with us in the mid-1950s. It's unfortunate that RCA couldn't bring Reimer's CSO to New York and make a few stereo recordings with the Maestro.
John
On the basis of a very limited sample, the New York performances and recordings in the collection seem inferior to the later Halle and other British orchestras.

Heck148
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Re: He Wasn’t Toscanini, but He Made Orchestras Sing

Post by Heck148 » Fri Aug 21, 2020 4:05 pm

CharmNewton wrote:
Sat Aug 15, 2020 11:50 pm

A professor once told me that the N.Y. Philharmonic had the best personnel because it was New York but I'm beginning to feel that the orchestra of the 1940s and 1950s was one in decline until the arrival of Bernstein and later Boulez.
Actually, the NYPO in the 40s and 50s was a great orchestra, one of the greatest ever for talent....the thing was, there was no regular, main music director after Rodzinski....Rodzinski executed the famous purge of 1943 - several principals were let go, new musicians brought in. A combination of conductors were featured - Walter, Mitropoulos, Stokowski, Szell, Reiner, etc.
Mitropoulos was finally appointed music director c 1950...but there was still a full slate of prominent guest conductors. the NYPO could be stunningly great, or pretty sloppy, depending on who was driving them. All the sections were very strong for talent, great woodwinds and brass esp...A CSO friend of mine said the NYPO strings at the time were all virtuosos!!

barney
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Re: He Wasn’t Toscanini, but He Made Orchestras Sing

Post by barney » Fri Aug 21, 2020 6:27 pm

Nice to have virtuosi - so long as they can play together! :D

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