Mendelssohn Fingal’s Cave
Nicolai The Merry Wives of Windsor
Tchaikovsky Andante Cantabile
Rossini Semiramide & William Tell
Clarke (arr Wood) Trumpet Voluntary
Puccini Manon Lescaut – Intermezzo Act 3
Humperdinck Hansel & Gretel: Overture
Sousa The Stars and Stripes Forever
Sir John Barbirolli (conductor)
Recorded between 1957-58
All but one of the six overtures on this disc meet the concept that most people have of the form, i.e. as the orchestral prelude to an evening in the opera house before the curtain rises. It is as well, however, that some of these pieces from the world of opera have been able to achieve an independent existence in the concert hall, because the chances of seeing and hearing Oberon, Semiramide or William Tell in the opera house are almost non-existent nowadays, those of The Merry Wives of Windsor and Hansel and Gretel scarcely better. Puccini’s Manon Lescaut is more often staged, but that master of the theatre rarely bothered with overtures, preferring to send the curtain up with little preamble. For Manon Lescaut, however, he composed a purely orchestral intermezzo at the end of Act 3, denoting the passing of time during Manon and Des Grieux’s journey from Paris to Le Havre before deportation to America.
Sir John Barbirolli’s full-blooded and dramatic Puccini performance brings vividly into focus his Italian blood and background, inherited from a Venetian family in which both his father and grandfather were members of the orchestra at Milan’s opera house, La Scala. There, in 1887, they and a young cellist named Arturo Toscanini played in the orchestra at the première of Verdi’s Otello, an event which came full-circle in 1968 when Sir John recorded the opera for HMV. The following year he conducted Atria in Rome (where three years earlier he had handsomely committed Madam Butterfly to disc), and these were the intended preludes to more operatic activity from him both in the opera house and via the gramophone: Manon Lescaut, Falstaff and Die Meistersinger were all planned. Sadly, it was a beginning that came too late: all the hoped-for projects were swept away by his death in May 1970 in his seventy-first year.
Others among the operatic overtures on this disc will be well remembered by Barbirolli admirers from his concerts, especially the Rossini pair and Oberon, the latter with its wonderfully delicate feeling in the introduction and strong vein of romantic ardour coursing through the succeeding allegro. Hansel and Gretel and The Merry Wives of Windsor were perhaps more rare, the latter often being reserved for one of his popular programmes of Viennese Music. Like Toscanini, Beecham, Monteux and one or two other conductors of the older school, Barbirolli really relished these little overtures and preludes (which are much less often heard today) and he invariably brought to them his characteristically elegant phrasing and lively rhythms; note his careful grading of the famous Rossini crescendos in Semiramide, the richness of the orchestral texture in Hansel and Gretel - despite its range being limited by a monaural recording - and the vigour and elan of the playing in The Merry Wives of Windsor.
Of the four pieces included here unrelated to the opera house, two make their debut on a Barbirolli CD. The Trumpet Voluntary recalls a much earlier Hallé, record, made in Manchester’s old Free Trade Hall in 1927 under Sir Hamilton Harty, the Orchestra’s principal conductor from 1920-33. Jeremiah Clarke’s piece, originally for harpsichord and called ‘The Prince of Denmark’s March’, became widely known as the Trumpet Voluntary (and in those days was often incorrectly attributed to Purcell). Coupled with Henry Walford Davies’s Solemn Melody, both making good use of the fine Free Trade Hall organ, Harty’s disc became one of the longest surviving 78s in the old Columbia catalogue. The other title new to a Barbirolli CD is his spick-and-span account of The Stars and Stripes Forever which gives the percussion players a chance to enjoy themselves. Elsewhere the Hallé strings, led by Laurance Turner (in his last season before retiring), properly reflect their conductor’s eloquent handling of Tchaikovsky’s Andante Cantabile.
Another Hallé stalwart who retired at the end of the same season (1957-8) was first clarinet Pat Ryan, whose many finely sensitive contributions can be heard throughout these performances, notably towards the end of Mendelssohn’s atmospheric portrait of the seas around Fingal’s Cave; all are typical of a quality of playing upon which Barbirolli had been able to rely ever since he re-formed the Orchestra in 1943. Even before Barbirolli’s arrival, of course, such artistry had stood out - for instance, in Sir Adrian Boult’s 1942 Halle recording of George Butterworth’s rhapsody A Shropshire Lad. Ryan’s thirty-six Hallé years stretched back to Harty’s time, and he was an orchestral ‘character’ with a real sense of humour and rarely at a loss for a response: typical was the occasion when a visiting conductor thought he was playing sharp and invited him to ‘come down’ (meaning in pitch); Ryan stood and surveyed the rostrum from his position high up on the platform risers before replying: “What, all the way down theer?” Barbirolli must have been sad to lose such a player, and such a man.
A few small curiosities among the recording details are perhaps worth mentioning. The monaural origin of Hansel and Gretel has already been touched upon: in fact, everything recorded during the sessions of 3-4 May 1957 produced mono-only results. The eagle-eyed, however, will spot that Fingal’s Cave in stereo and William Tell in mono were recorded on the same day. These both came from a much longer series of sessions (21-29 May 1957) of which everything recorded came out eventually in stereo with the exception of William Tell and four Grainger titles (the latter now on CDSJB1006). Efforts to trace stereo tapes of these five titles have been only partially successful - Grainger’s Shepherd’s Hey alone can be heard in genuine stereo on CDSJB1006 — but so far as the present disc is concerned William Tell has to remain in monaural sound, as it did on an earlier CD reissue.
Lyndon Jenkins, The Barbirolli Society, 2002