Barbirolli conducts Sibelius’s First (1966)

This is a short review from about 1999 that I’m republishing as I revive and freshen up my original Inktroduction to Sibelius’s First Symphony. Originally available as a single CD with the Third Symphony, released under EMI’s Classics for Pleasure budget line in 1996, the recording is now available as part of a “Sibelius Edition” of all the stereo recordings Sir John Barbirolli (1899-1970) made for EMI with the Hallé Orchestra. All good men and women, these. Details of the recordings at the bottom. Let’s do the review first:

Sir John Barbirolli is widely respected for his few recordings of Sibelius. Many swear by his Second Symphony, which has appeared on many smaller labels. I first heard this version of the First on LP, and it was quite a stunning experience.

Sir John provides a steady and powerful reading. Occasionally the somewhat blocky phrasing is a little distracting but Barbirolli effectively combines orchestral power with his sense of the music’s beauty and grandeur. And to this point I must single out the Hallé Orchestra’s harpist – throughout the Symphony, she/he provides beautiful tone (where other harpists often sound thin and prickly) and musical playing. Sometimes, when it is resounding in exposed, quiet passages, the music sounds really modern. The Hallé strings are veritable masters of diminuendo.

The first movement is a vision of splendour – the crafting of the music is utterly convincingly, his trumpeteers bellow out their majestic triplet with magnificence. As for beauty, listen to the fragile beauty of the hushed opening of the Andante – breathtakingly tender, the winds mistily floating, the strings sighing (listen for the diminuendo), with harp strumming in langorous tranquility – I almost cried when I first heard this. What did Sibelius see or experience to write this heavenly music?

The British treatment makes the Scherzo and Finale a touch on the slow side, but they are very steady. I miss the scherzic element and the rush (heard in the fast section of the Andante), but I am in complete admiration for Sir John’s earnest, intelligent and sensible direction. In the final analysis, the Orchestra responds very convincingly and the music feels just right.

… And that’s it! It’s a short review, which was rather rare at the Inkpot. :)

Check out the website of the Barbirolli Society, UK, too if you’re interested in more about this great conductor.

The 1996 issue:

EMI Classics for Pleasure CD-CFP 5022
[74:46] budget-price.
Symphony No.1 (41’50”) + Symphony No.3
Recorded Dec 1966 (reissued 1996)

…… Which I’m pretty sure is out of print, so look for this instead:

Sir John Barbirolli – Sibelius Edition
Hallé Orchestra
Symphonies Nos. 1 – 7 + Tone Poems (5 CDs worth)
EMI Classics 0724356729926

Hallé Orchestra

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Leon is Singapore's resident champion of Jean Sibelius.

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