Friday, March 10, 2006

Barbirolli's genius?

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.


At 7:21 AM, Blogger Gary Read said...

This is my first message to you, I am a fellow Mahlerian and I am interested in your comments on Barbirolli's 2nd when you say 'there is no new ground that is going to be broken by this disc'.
My question is, is there new ground to be broken by any disk, or have we already had the definitive version? (For me it is Kaplan's although I prepare myself for fallout when I say that!
Regards, Gary

At 8:38 AM, Blogger Patrick J. Smith said...

I agree that, speaking purely from the standpoint of the score, Kaplan's 2nd is - for now - the definitive Mahler 2. I can't imagine anyone being more faithful to the score than Kaplan. To answer your question, in two parts, we have a definitive score-driven interpretation in Kaplan; however, I don't know if we can ever have a definitive intent-driven performance (though Mehta and Bernstein II come close).

As to my comment about "new ground," I refer - largely - to the impression that some folks have about Barbirolli's Mahler. Which is to say, the attitude that every new release of a performance of his is some sort of milestone in Mahler records. My feelings about this, I think, now, can be inferred from my comments about this performance. Like Horenstein, there is more myth to Barbirolli's Mahler than substance.

At 10:59 AM, Blogger Gary Read said...

I must confess I haven't listened to the Barbirolli version, I will have to get a copy.
I do have several others and I love the Rattle/CBSO version having been lucky enough to be in the audience at the opening of the Birmingham Symphony Hall when 2 was performed. (Incidentally I was appalled when a great swathe of the auditorium was empty - they were given to the Olympic committee who were in town and failed to turn up).
I still return to the Kaplan though as I truly believe that is how the man himself would have wanted it performed.

At 12:28 PM, Blogger Patrick J. Smith said...

I must agree with your final point. As detailed in his scores as Mahler was, I cannot imagine that he wanted conductors to take much license with them. In fact, many of his markings indicate an understanding of what conductors would tend to do. I suppose that's a plus of being the most gifted conductor of your generation.

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