04 October 2014

CD REVIEW: Gustav Mahler & Igor Stravinsky – SYMPHONY NO. 2 ‘RESURRECTION’ & SYMPHONY OF PSALMS (E. Zareska, V. Elliott; Hallé Choir, Hallé Orchestra; Sir John Barbirolli; The Barbirolli Society SJB 1078-79)

CD REVIEW: Gustav Mahler & Igor Stravinsky - SYMPHONY NO. 2 'RESURRECTION' & SYMPHONY OF PSALMS (The Barbirolli Society SJB 1078-79)

GUSTAV MAHLER (1860 – 1911) and IGOR STRAVINSKY (1882 – 1971): Symphony No. 2 ‘Resurrection’ and Symphony of Psalms—Eugenia Zareska, mezzo-soprano; Victoria Elliott, soprano; Hallé Choir; Hallé Orchestra; Sir John Barbirolli, conductor [Recorded in performance in Free Trade Hall, Manchester, UK, on 12 March 1959 (Mahler), and at the Edinburgh Festival on 28 August 1957 (Stravinsky); The Barbirolli Society, SJB 1078-79; 2 CD, 105:57; Available from The Barbirolli Society, Amazon, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

It is often said now that the supposed erosion of interest in Classical Music—a phenomenon of dubious legitimacy—is precipitated in part by the lack of great conductors at the helms of the world’s most important orchestras. A similar perception seized musical New York when the resignation of Arturo Toscanini from the podium of the New York Philharmonic left the orchestra’s bosses with the unenviable task of replacing him. Confidence was hardly boosted by the news of the engagement of an Englishman with a funny-sounding surname, a young conductor still in his thirties of whom many well-informed New Yorkers had never heard. The arrival of John Barbirolli—knighthood would come later—in New York in many ways echoed that of Gustav Mahler a generation earlier. Meticulous, determined, and armed with lifelong passion for and knowledge of music, Maestro Barbirolli was the sort of musician who practiced Ravel in lavatories when his conservatory professors condemned the music and whose operatic endeavors were shaped as much by the conductor’s desire to listen to the voices in the orchestra as by response to the voices on the stage. Even in the first phase of his conducting career, when he garnered the appreciation of Elgar and Vaughan Williams, Maestro Barbirolli demanded unparalleled preparedness both of himself and of the orchestras he led. The intensity of his focus on achieving the highest possible standards of playing earned him a few enemies among musicians and press, but his truest friends dwelled within the ledger lines of the scores he conducted.

Maestro Barbirolli’s association with the Hallé started in 1932, when the orchestra’s principal conductor, Sir Hamilton Harty, chose to accept more engagements beyond Manchester. One of the quartet of conductors selected to lead the Hallé Orchestra in Harty’s absence, Maestro Barbirolli won plaudits from audience and critics alike, as well as the respect of the Hallé musicians. Following a stint with the New York Philharmonic that kept him in America during the torturous first months of World War II, he did not hesitate to accept an offer in 1943 to return to England to rehabilitate the Hallé, the ranks of which had been decimated by the war. Thus began a quarter-century-tenure that transformed the Hallé Orchestra from a ragtag ensemble of schoolmarms and student players to one of the best orchestras in Britain. So great was the rapport that the conductor developed with the Hallé that, following his retirement from the post of Principal Conductor in 1968, a successor was not named until several months after his death in 1970.

Maestro Barbirolli’s relationship with the music of Gustav Mahler underwent a transformation similar to the Hallé’s during the course of the conductor’s career. Despite early misgivings about the consistency of Mahler’s compositional integrity, the composer’s music played rôles of ever-increasing prominence in Maestro Barbirolli’s concertizing and recording schedules as his work with the Hallé and other orchestras progressed. He famously expounded that preparing to conduct a Mahler symphony for the first time was a process requiring months, even years of intense study, and the depth of his familiarity with the music is apparent in his live and studio recordings of the Symphonies with several orchestras, as well as Das Lied von der Erde with Kathleen Ferrier and Richard Lewis and Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen with Dame Janet Baker, both with the Hallé. Performances of Mahler’s gargantuan ‘Resurrection’ Symphony with the Berliner Philharmoniker [1965, with soprano Maria Stader and mezzo-soprano Dame Janet Baker] and Radio-Sinfonie-Orchester Stuttgart [1970, with soprano Helen Donath and contralto Birgit Finnilä] are preserved on disc, but the 12 March 1959 performance in Manchester’s Free Trade Hall, the Hallé’s base of operations prior to the opening of Bridgewater Hall in 1996, recorded for broadcast by the BBC and now released on compact disc by The Barbirolli Society is the kind of performance that those who heard it either in the concert hall or over the radio in 1959 cannot have forgotten. Hearing it now in a digital remastering by Paul Baily, the technical wizard who also worked wonders with the 1961 Covent Garden Die Walküre recently released by Testament, the performance stirs the senses as potently as it must have done fifty-five years ago.

The sound in the performance of the ‘Resurrection’ is noticeably inferior to that in the accompanying performance of Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, but the ears adjust quickly when the exceptional quality of the music-making reveals itself. The ‘complete gravity and solemnity of expression’ of the Allegro maestoso opening movement have rarely been effectuated with the grandeur furnished by Maestro Barbirolli in this performance. This problematic score presents challenges that push the Hallé players to the limits of their abilities, and there are passages in which even the famously plush playing of the Hallé strings proves fallible. In the notoriously tricky repeat of the exposition, Maestro Barbirolli takes a measured approach to unfurling themes that will recur in the four movements that follow, but the expansiveness of his pacing does not impede the dramatic impetus of the music. In fact, Maestro Barbirolli’s conducting realizes Mahler’s vision of the Second Symphony being the resolution of the programmatic First Symphony with appreciable coherence, and he demonstrates unique comprehension of the overall structure of the ‘Resurrection’ on its own and as a transition from the tonal architecture of the ‘Titan.’

​In his broadly-phrased account of the Symphony’s Andante moderato second movement, Maestro Barbirolli takes Mahler’s instructions—‘Sehr gemächlich, Nie eilen’ (‘Very leisurely, Never rush’)—at face value, the eloquence of the music contrasting with the funereal solemnity of the first movement but having its own unique stateliness and subtle melancholy. The Hallé’s ensemble is tighter, and there is increased clarity of thematic development in all sections of the orchestra. The formal charm of the Scherzo third movement is not lost in the extravagant volume to which Maestro Barbirolli escalates, the ‘tranquil, flowing movement’ (‘In ruhig fließender Bewegung’) requested by the composer supplied by the conductor and attentive musicians. There are a number of misfires from the orchestra, but they are only momentarily distracting and certainly not cumulatively disfiguring.

The entry of Polish mezzo-soprano Eugenia Zareska in the fourth movement elevates the performance to even greater heights of emotional power. A respected artist whose discography includes, in addition to a radiant performance of Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen with the London Philharmonic and Eduard van Beinum, operatic rôles as dissimilar as Ottavia in Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, the titular noblewoman in Offenbach’s La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein, Marina in Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, Gräfin Geschwitz in Berg’s Lulu, and Jocasta in Stravinsky’s Oedipus rex and whose début rôle at La Scala was Dorabella in Mozart’s Così fan tutte, Ms. Zareska was in her forty-ninth year at the time of this performance of the ‘Resurrection.’ She was a versatile singer capable of adapting her technique to an astonishing variety of vocal styles, but no music in which she is heard on recordings suits her better than the deceptively straightforward declamation of Mahler’s ‘Urlicht.’ The composer’s marking of ‘Sehr feierlich, aber schlicht’ (‘Very solemn, but simple’) is zealously respected: indeed, the tempo set by Maestro Barbirolli at first seems debilitatingly slow, but Ms. Zareska’s breath control enables her to follow the conductor’s speed with awe-inspiring results. The directness with which the singer delivers lines like ‘Der Mensch liegt in größter Pein!’ and ‘Ich ließ mich nicht abweisen!’ is uncommonly moving, and the voice itself seems to emanate from the heart of the earth like that of Erda in Der Ring des Nibelungen. The text from Des Knaben Wunderhorn is of course one that was of great personal significance to Mahler, and both Maestro Barbirolli and Ms. Zareska react to the quiet depth of the music with unperturbed grace. There are a couple of phrases in which the awkwardness of the vocal line undermines the steadiness of Ms. Zareska’s tone, but the richness, beauty, and poetic sensitivity of her singing are profoundly satisfying. Rather than disinterestedly accompanying, Maestro Barbirolli prompts the Hallé musicians to sing with Ms. Zareska through their playing.

It is in the leviathan fifth movement, in which the efforts of many conductors dissolve into desperate struggles to hold things together, that Maestro Barbirolli’s performance is most accomplished. The inherent logic of the conductor’s approach to each of the preceding movements is confirmed as, one by one, the previously-heard thematic elements reappear. There are sour notes in the brass fanfares, but Maestro Barbirolli rightly phrases them with the gravitas of Bach chorales. Considering the provenance and vintage of the recording, the distance effects are surprisingly well managed, and the hushed entry of the chorus is spine-tingling. The singing of the Hallé Choir is one of this recording’s principal glories, both in the ‘Resurrection’ and in Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. The nobility that the choristers bring to Klopstock’s and Mahler’s own words is captivating, and the sopranos earn special praise for the fearlessness and accuracy of their singing in the very treacherous tessitura of the Symphony’s final pages. Ms. Zareska again distinguishes herself, her singing of ‘O glaube, mein Herz, o glaube’ filled with emotion but never exaggerated. Soprano Victoria Elliott [there is debate about the correct spelling of her surname, but most sources prefer the spelling with a pair of final Ts], who studied with Rosetta Pampanini and sang prominent rôles such as Verdi’s Violetta and Leonora in Il trovatore, Puccini’s Tosca and Cio-Cio-San, and Maddalena in Andrea Chénier at Sadler’s Wells and elsewhere, sings glamorously, her voice firm and ideally-projected if slightly short of the pitches in a few of the highest notes of her part. Perhaps because of microphone placement for the BBC broadcast from which this recording originates, she holds her own against the choir impressively, enabling the text to be heard as in few live performances. Free Trade Hall’s custom-built three-manual Compton organ, installed for the Hall’s 1951 reopening to replace the magnificent organ destroyed in the Blitz and itself eventually replaced by a relocated Wurlitzer model, resounds thrillingly, and the bells, though suspect of intonation, chime vividly. Whereas many performances of the ‘Resurrection’ seem merely to lose momentum and crawl to a stop, Maestro Barbirolli brings this reading to a genuine resolution, the Last Judgment appropriately being both beginning and end.

The Vulgate texts of Psalms 38, 40, and 150 used by Igor Stravinsky in his Symphony of Psalms give the work an odd symmetry that also engenders a kinship with Mahler’s ‘Resurrection.’ Maestro Barbirolli enjoyed a mutually admiring relationship with Stravinsky, who valued the conductor’s absolute dedication to mastering a score before presenting it to the public. In this performance of the Symphony of Psalms from the 1957 Edinburgh Festival, Maestro Barbirolli’s expertise in Stravinsky’s music nearly equals his mastery of Mahler repertory. Each of the three movements, played without separating pauses, is fashioned with scrutiny of its individual forms. It is not the kind of performance in which the choir is treated like an instrument in the orchestra: rather, Maestro Barbirolli leads the Hallé players as though they were, collectively, a voice in the choir. The perilous double fugue in the second movement is piloted with the deliberation that would be applied to similar numbers in the scores of Bach and Händel. The contrast between the initial and ultimate tempi in the third movement is accentuated by the pinpoint articulation that Maestro Barbirolli coaxes from both choir and orchestra. Notably, this is not a conventionally didactic reading of the Symphony of Psalms: to Maestro Barbirolli, music was its own religion, and his rôle was to be a postulant, not a priest.

Every conductor of lasting importance should enjoy the advocacy of an organization like The Barbirolli Society. This release proves anew that this enterprising Society’s principal aspiration is industry rather than idolatry: the aim is not to canonize Sir John Barbirolli, but the Society’s efforts undeniably preserve and perpetuate the miracles that the conductor achieved in many of his performances. These recordings of Mahler’s Second Symphony and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms are not performances of clinical precision, but they are pageants of the luminosity of which Maestro Barbirolli was capable when afforded adequate rehearsal time and collaborations with musicians with whom he shared bonds of trust and respect. The goal was never perfection, and the mistakes in these performances are not sins to be forgiven but scars to be commended. They are the wounds of musicians who devoted themselves body and soul to their cataclysmic conclave with great music and a great conductor.