Classical Reissue Reviews

SCHUBERT: Symphony No. 4 “Tragic”; BRITTEN: Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings; SIBELIUS: Symphony No. 2 – Gerald English, tenor/ Hermann Baumann, horn/ Cologne Radio-Sym. Orch./ Sir John Barbirolli – ICA Classics (2 CDs)

Sir John Barbirolli brings a devotee’s conviction to his Schubert “Tragic” Symphony and the Sibelius D Major in Cologne, and the Britten Serenade adds an important work to his discography.

Published on March 15, 2013

SCHUBERT: Symphony No. 4 “Tragic”; BRITTEN: Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings; SIBELIUS: Symphony No. 2 – Gerald English, tenor/ Hermann Baumann, horn/ Cologne Radio-Sym. Orch./ Sir John Barbirolli – ICA Classics (2 CDs)

SCHUBERT: Symphony No. 4 in C Minor, D. 417 “Tragic”; BRITTEN: Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings, Op. 31; SIBELIUS: Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 43 – Gerald English, tenor/ Hermann Baumann, horn/ Cologne Radio-Symphony Orch./ Sir John Barbirolli – ICA Classics ICAC 5096 (2 CDs) 52:47; 45:45 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

The Cologne, Germany concert of 7 February 1969 finds the volatile Sir John Barbirolli (1899-1970) in fine fettle, leading the Cologne Radio-Symphony in works both familiar and new to his recorded legacy. Except for a reading of the Schubert 1816 “Tragic” Symphony with the New York Philharmonic (21 January 1939), Barbirolli did not bequeath us a modern-sounding testament, and this performance emanates a taut sense of drama. Barbirolli assumes a hard driven line for the opening movement, whose modulations from C Minor to A-flat Major evoke an unrelenting tension from the Cologne players. The heart of the movement, the rondo-structured  Andante – also in A-flat Major – exerts a nuanced pathos very much beyond the composer’s nineteen years at the time of composition. The Menuetto rather explodes instead of offering charm as its dance ethos. Only in the Trio section does Barbirolli declare an uneasy truce with Viennese civility, but even here the passions rage. With its unrelenting pulse, the last movement Allegro surges and swells in the manner of an unreleased torrent of energy. The conclusion, lit by four horns in glorious C Major, asserts a vigorous sense of triumph that Barbirolli seems to have fixed as his personal goal for this driven account.

Benjamin Britten’s 1942 Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings owes its existence to the legendary French horn virtuoso Dennis Brain, who requested a new piece for horn from the composer. Britten set six poems by British authors to music, using Night and its varieties of emotional energy as his theme. With its excursions into the evils of the human heart and the need for (eternal) sleep, the sequence forms what John Donne would label a Nocturnal. Tenor Gerald English (b. 1925) and horn player Hermann Baumann (b. 1934) join Barbirolli and the WDR strings for the processional, beginning with Cotton’s Pastoral (Evening Quatrains). Tennyson’s “Blow, bugle, blow” provides the material for the Nocturne, here in stunning colors and clear diction. Blake’s “The Sick Rose” provides the eerie perversity of human nature in Elegy. The harmonies invoked by Britten prove as audacious as Blake’s sinister ambiguities.  Dirge takes its form from an anonymous poet’s “Lyke-Wake Dirge” of the fifteenth century.  The dark chromatics under the voice create a tortured sense of plainchant, a poisoned commentary from Carmina Burana. Baumann proves most virtuosic in this anguished nightmare vision that repeats ironically, “And Christ receive thy soul.” Baumann’s hunt motifs usher in Ben Jonson’s “Hymn to Diana:” thou that mak’st the day of night.  Finally, hushed exaltation in the John Keats sonnet “To Sleep,” whose harmonies might recall aspects of Mahler.  New to the Barbirolli discography, this collaboration reminds us that Barbirolli championed Britten in his New York days, having premiered the Violin Concerto and the Sinfonia da Requiem.

Barbirolli remained a devoted Sibelius interpreter, having made four inscriptions of the 1902 D Major Symphony, since he openly admired the composer’s contribution to symphonic form, his “power and originality of mind unequalled in his time.” Built on a series of three-note figures, a trill, and a descending fifth, the first movement resists easy pigeonholing into sonata-form structure, but Barbirolli injects a furious athleticism into its rushing and then ruminative impulses, rife with bucolic pageantry or grumbling effects of the Northern climes. A potent rival to the famed 1950 Koussevitzky account of the Tempo andante, ma rubato, the Barbirolli account of the “Aeolian” second movement projects a gloomy mystery to the bass pizzicati that confront the bassoons, a theme Sibelius claimed marked Don Juan’s meeting with Death. Barbirolli fashions an intensely-honed funereal song that culminates in a series of brass outbursts, which then allows the mysterious clouds to clear to reveal Paradise Regained.

Barbirolli urges the breathless Vivacissimo third movement as a kind of toccata for strings, winds, brass, and tympani. Its Trio offers ontological consolation in the form of an oboe-led pastoral. When the pastoral episode returns, it serves as a bridge to what can only be termed a monumental heroic vision. The WDR strings, tympani and trumpets establish a curtain of sound that quite sweeps us into the glories of D Major. The trombones carpet the pathway to ecstasy with their own silver sheen. The culmination of the “chorale” pattern simply becomes dynamically louder, an imitation of Beethoven’s orchestral treatment of his Ode to Joy theme or Ravel’s Bolero. Barbirolli treats the entire score with a veneration and majesty infused by the special element of an acolyte’s conviction.

—Gary Lemco




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