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Friday, June 23, 2017

Gustav Mahler - Symphony No. 3 (John Barbirolli)


Composer: Gustav Mahler

  1. Symphony No. 3 in D minor: 1a. Kräftig. Entschieden -
  2. Symphony No. 3 in D minor: 1b. Tempo -
  3. Symphony No. 3 in D minor: 1c. Zeit lassen - a tempo -
  4. Symphony No. 3 in D minor: 1d. Immer dasselbe Tempo (Marsch). Nicht eilen -
  5. Symphony No. 3 in D minor: 1e. Tempo primo. Wie zu Anfang -
  6. Symphony No. 3 in D minor: 1f. Tempo
  7. Symphony No. 3 in D minor: 2. Tempo di Menuetto. Sehr mäßig
  8. Symphony No. 3 in D minor: 3a. Commodo. Scherzando. Ohen Hast -
  9. Symphony No. 3 in D minor: 3b. Sehr gemächlich. Frei vorgetragen. (Wie die Weise eines Posthorns) -
  10. Symphony No. 3 in D minor: 3c. Schnell und schmetternd wie eine Fanfare - Tempo I. Mit geheimnisvoller Hast
  1. Symphony No. 3 in D minor: 4. Sehr langsam. Misterioso. Durchaus ppp "O Mensch! Gib acht!"
  2. Symphony No. 3 in D minor: 5. Lustig im Tempo und keck im Ausdruck "Bimm Bamm / Es sungen drei Engel"
  3. Symphony No. 3 in D minor: 6a. Langsam. Ruhevoll. Empfunden -
  4. Symphony No. 3 in D minor: 6b. a tempo. Sehr gesangvoll -
  5. Symphony No. 3 in D minor: 6c. Sehr langsam
  6. Sir John Barbirolli in Conversation with C. B. Rees: Youth / Beginnings as cellist
  7. Sir John Barbirolli in Conversation with C. B. Rees: Early conducting career / Conductor of the New York Philharmonic / Return to Britain
  8. Sir John Barbirolli in Conversation with C. B. Rees: The Hallé Orchestra / The art of conducting

Kerstin Meyer, contralto
Ladies of the Hallé Choir
Boys of Manchester Grammar School
Hallé Orchestra
John Barbirolli, conductor

Date: 1969
Label: BBC Legends



"... In March 1969 he recorded the work under studio conditions for the BBC and this is now available on BBC Legends (BBCL 4004-7). No matter what observations one might care to make about his treatment of individual sections, matters of phrasing, dynamics and expression, his vision of this work was emphatically of this journey upwards in carefully graded steps. He also grasped completely the first movement's totality with no doubt as to its validity and he wasn’t ashamed of it or its rough edges and elemental texture. The opening on eight horns is vigorous, rude and raucous. The recording then allows us to hear grumbles and groans on percussion as primeval nature bestirs, even though the crucial uprushes on lower strings are a little disappointing when compared with some where they are made to really "kick". The section that introduces Pan himself contains a ripe delivery of the trombone solo and when other members of the section join in, forward and close-miked, the effect of their lament comes over black as doom. The role of what passes as Exposition is the delivery of the brassy "in your face" march meant to signify summer's arrival. Though with this being Mahler he insists on hurling the workaday world into the maelstrom. Mahler loved his marches as much as Elgar did and this one is his most joyous and so it comes over under Barbirolli. The moment of its arrival in this recording has a particular quality which I can't imagine any other orchestra bringing. If workers in Vienna inspired Mahler, Barbirolli seems to have had in mind the holiday resorts in the north of England at the height of summer some time in the past, the forties or fifties, perhaps. There's a hint of the Promenade at Blackpool: the whiff of fish and chips, the sun catching the silver paper on the "Kiss Me Quick" hats, the tang of petrol from charabancs depositing mill girls from the looms of Manchester on Bank Holiday Monday. Then at 347 we are dragged back to the natural world with all its splendour as the horns roar out the theme from the start and the Development is underway. I like the way Barbirolli balances his brass sections here. It shows the value of the orchestra having played in "live" performances before. The important passage at 530-642 is where Mahler develops on the idea of marching and he marks each section differently, something a conductor must take note of. "The Rabble", "The Battle Begins", "The South Storm" are all acknowledged by Barbirolli and this has the effect of making the music seem to comment on itself. I was also put in mind of some of the wilder sections of Ives in the way the marches, broken down into constituent moods, seem to criss-cross each other in mesmerising half-nightmare. There is some lovely playing from the cellos prior to the return of the march proper. The portamenti the players indulge are quintessential Barbirolli. But this is swept away because the march has one more appearance to make. This time I was more aware of the long crescendo that will bring about a conclusion to the movement. The frenzy of the coda, starting at Figure 74, where the orchestra explodes into wild and crazy vistas, is well brought off. Though not even Barbirolli can match Horenstein here whose LSO brass are absolutely shattering.

There is enough of a sense of contrast between the first and second movements to mark the change from Part I to Part II but not too much to deny this is the next "step" in our ascent. There's certainly no question of treating the movement as a lightweight interlude and the second movement is a lot subtler than is sometimes realised, so the conductor must lavish the same care on it he would everything else. Barbirolli’s walk through the flowers in the meadows doesn't take the pretty route. There are stinging nettles beyond the blooms and we stumble into them in the way the woodwind allows spiky sounds to come through. The rhythm is also nicely pointed when the tempo picks up, which means when it relaxes into lyricism the effect is that much more nostalgic. Barbirolli next adopts a slightly slower tempo in the third movement but this allows a little more room to make rhythmic points and bring out character. I don't think I've heard the rollicking brass descents two bars before 9 and likewise before 23 delivered quite so loudly and with such precision at such volume. Barbirolli must have drilled his players meticulously. The crucial posthorn episode, our first glimpse of humanity, is beautifully prepared but the first posthorn is closer than we are used to. However, the section between the two appearances of the posthorn makes up for any misgivings by being gloriously raucous. If the posthorn represents the first appearance of humanity then nature has the final word with the unforgettable passage at bars 529-556: a crescendo from ppp to fff followed by a diminuendo back down to pppp replete with harp glissandi. This passage has at its centre, a development of one of the bird call motifs to become "The heavy shadow of lifeless nature", rearing up on horns and trombones. It links back to the first movement and forward to the end and is a key moment of crisis that should be marked with special emphasis so we feel threatened. Barbirolli prided himself on being able to recognise highlights and climaxes in each Mahler symphony and there's no doubt he gives this passage everything it can stand. I would have liked a little more Stygian gloom for the fourth movement which is a setting of Nietzsche's "Oh Mensch" and the first appearance of the voice. Kerstin Meyer is a fine singer but you can hear too much of her for her contribution to be as mysterious as it ought to be. I did like the way Barbirolli appears to want us to make the connection between her accompaniment and the start of the first movement, though. A nice contrast arrives with the boys and women in the fifth movement and a return to the Wunderhorn world heralding dawn with bells tolling. The boys of Manchester Grammar School are nowhere near the angelic voices we are used to. These are urchins from the mean streets of Manchester and give an earthier quality to match the purer sounds of the women and the darker, warmer tone of Meyer. Compared with some, Barbirolli is more expressive and "heart-on-sleeve" in the last movement and the big-heartedness of it all is overwhelming. This is a true journey's end that couldn't have been won by this conductor in any other way. Notice Sir John’s expressive rubato and the singing line of cello portamenti. His inability to resist speeding up at moments of release later on spoils this movement's serenity just a little, though. But take that away and it would not have been a Barbirolli performance at all. The end is built to masterly fashion within Barbirolli's warm-hearted view. He presses forward in the closing pages and can't resist almost a luftpause before the last chord of all. But he keeps his timpani under control, just as he should, and justifies his view of the end as a safe harbour nobly won.

A couple of months after Sir John’s death the Mahler expert Deryck Cooke declared this "one of the finest Mahler performances I have ever heard" and I certainly concur with that. A sentiment confirmed by an international jury of critics at the Mahlerwoche in Toblach in 2000 when they gave the recording the award for best stereo Mahler recording of 1999. It's quite a close-in sound especially made for broadcast, almost a conductor's balance with every detail clear. Some may find the reproduction of the brass troublesome but with good remastering it comes over bold, brassy and exuberant like the symphony itself and Sir John's interpretation which more than makes up for any shortcomings in the Hallé’s playing. They are some way from the finest but you would have to have a heart of stone and a pair of ears to match to let occasional lapses in ensemble and fluffed notes bother you very much. There is poetry here, there is drama, and there is a performance that reflects a world of feeling now gone.

Testament have given an official release to a "live" Berlin Philharmonic recording of the Third conducted by Barbirolli from 1966. Even though this is the Berlin Philharmonic the standard of the playing falls below what you would expect from that orchestra and, as with their Mahler Second with Barbirolli, there is just not enough familiarity with the music for this to challenge the Hallé version on BBC Legends. ..."

-- Tony Duggan's survey on MusicWeb International

More reviews:


Gustav Mahler (7 July 1860 – 18 May 1911) was an Austrian late-Romantic composer, and one of the leading conductors of his generation. As a composer he acted as a bridge between the 19th century Austro-German tradition and the modernism of the early 20th century. In his lifetime his status as a conductor was established beyond question, but his own music gained wide popularity only after periods of neglect. After 1945, Mahler became one of the most frequently performed and recorded of all composers. Mahler's œuvre is relatively small. Aside from early works, most of his are very large-scale works, designed for large orchestral forces, symphonic choruses and operatic soloists.


John Barbirolli (2 December 1899 – 29 July 1970) was a British conductor and cellist. He is remembered above all as conductor of the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester, which he helped save from dissolution in 1943 and conducted for the rest of his life. Barbirolli was particularly associated with the music of English composers such as Elgar, Delius and Vaughan Williams. His interpretations of other late romantic composers, such as Mahler and Sibelius, as well as of earlier classical composers, including Schubert, are also still admired.


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    1. Sir John Barbirolli in Conversation with C. B. Rees (tracks 6-8, disc 2)

  3. Barbirolli's performance of the Third is as moving and memorable as any I've ever heard. Thank you for this glorious share.