2020-08-21 23:37:39 UTC
NYT: 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.
By David Allen
"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
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
"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
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
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.
Listen to it all and you'll hear plenty of duds, but plenty of
classics, too: Mahler, with the Berlin Philharmonic; Vaughan
Williams, ablaze; Elgar, with the great cellist Jacqueline du Pré
and without her.
Mahler, Symphony No. 9, Adagio
Berlin Philharmonic, 1964 (Warner Classics)
Vaughan Williams, Tallis Fantasia
Sinfonia of London, 1962 (Warner Classics)
Elgar, "Softly and gently" from "The Dream of Gerontius"
Janet Baker and Hallé Orchestra, 1964 (Warner Classics)
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
"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
Mozart, Piano Concerto No. 23, Allegro
Arthur Rubinstein and London Symphony Orchestra, 1931 (Warner
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
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
The Sony set gives only a suggestion of what Barbirolli achieved in
New York. He offered a good deal of new American music and works new
to the Philharmonic, as well as the understandable British novelties
--including the premiere, in 1940, of Britten's Violin Concerto,
which one critic thought so poor as to encourage "the enemies of
democracy." If none of that appears in the box set, what Sony does
give us is evidence that the artistry was not at all dim. Schubert's
Fourth Symphony snaps by, crisp and crackling; a Brahms Second is
touching in parts, tempestuous in others; a headstrong Sibelius
First snarls and soars, leaving little indication that the orchestra
was in disrepair by April 1942, as the reviews alleged.
Schubert, Symphony No. 4, First Movement
New York Philharmonic, 1939 (Sony Classical)
Brahms, Symphony No. 2, Finale
New York Philharmonic, 1940 (Sony Classical)
Sibelius, Symphony No. 1, Finale
New York Philharmonic, 1942 (Sony Classical)
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
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.
Vaughan Williams, Symphony No. 5, Romanza
Hallé Orchestra, 1944 (Warner Classics)
Berlioz, "Symphonie Fantastique," "Un bal"
Hallé Orchestra, 1947 (Warner Classics)
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
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).
Mahler, "Ich bin der Welt..."
Janet Baker and New Philharmonia Orchestra, 1969 (Warner Classics)
Mahler, "Ich bin der Welt..."
Janet Baker and Hallé Orchestra, 1967 (Warner Classics)
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.
Elgar, Symphony No. 2, Finale
Hallé Orchestra, 1954 (Warner Classics)
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
Plenty, in other words, to prove Olin Downes wrong.