David Hurwitz of Classics Today absolutely hates Sir John Barbirolli. I am not the biggest fan of his (or of Hurwitz, for that matter), but I am willing to give him a try. Thus, I bought the Testament release of his 1965 Mahler 2nd. It is neither the sublime experience the Barbirollites claim, nor is it the sonic excrement that Hurwitz would have you think it is.
In 1965, there was no way that the Berliner Philharmoniker was going to turn in a definitive account of any Mahler symphony. There was no performing tradition for Mahler in Berlin, unlike Vienna, which had some experience with the man himself. The war years drove out most of the best Mahlerians and gave America a big head-start. In fact, I would argue that they never really got into Mahler until Von Karajan's live Berlin Festival 9th in 1982 (I think). Barbirolli did (re) introduce Mahler to Berlin in the early 60s, but keeping Von Karajan happy kept him away from any substantial work with the Berliners.
This performance is absolutely worthless from interpretative and sonic standpoints. The 2nd has been done brilliantly so many times, from Klemperer to Mehta to Kaplan, that there is no new ground that is going to be broken by this disc. Barbirolli has a dramatic and broad vision of the 2nd, but so does Leonard Bernstein, especially in his DGG record. The massive score was clearly very unfamiliar to the Berlin forces, and this is obvious from the flubs and glaring errors that they made. The sound is mono, and not terribly great mono, despite the fact that it was 1965. The tape hiss is noticeable. Sir John's vocal stylings, though, were picked up nicely. This record has no practical value.
However, as a document of a nascent performing tradition, this is fairly valuable. It is interesting to see how a world-class orchestra reacts to Mahler when they have no substantial experience with his bigger works, like the 2nd. They did well-enough, but Mahler demands more than well-enough. So, then, it is useful to see a new era being born, but the Berliners aren't now much of a Mahler band, so this recording is for the specialist collector only.