Orchestra: New Philharmonia Orchestra
Conductor: John Barbirolli
Composer: Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss
SPARS Code: AAD
Number of Discs: 2
Format: FLAC (image+cue)
Label: EMI Classics
Size: 585 MB
01. Metamorphosen – Study for 23 solo strings AV142
02. Symphony No. 6 in A minor ‘Tragic’: I. Allegro energico, ma non troppo
01. Symphony No. 6 in A minor ‘Tragic’: III. Andante
02. Symphony No. 6 in A minor ‘Tragic’: II. Scherzo (Wuchtig)
03. Symphony No. 6 in A minor ‘Tragic’: IV. Finale (Allegro moderato)
Wild-eyed & Relentless – One of the grittiest accounts of the Sixth!
This Sixth is long overdue inclusion in the “Great Recordings of the Century” catalog – because despite its varied initial critical reception, it’s Barbirolli’s most interesting Mahler recording. Its absence from the catalog or any Mahler aficionado’s collection would be a much greater loss than were Barbirolli’s Ninth or Fifth to go missing.
In this coupling with a fitting and gorgeous Strauss Metamorphosen it has previously been available on an EMI Rouge et Noire disc, back then still with the movement order reversed to reflect the scholarship at the time: Scherzo first, Andante second. It works to riveting effect, which somewhat excuses the audio engineers’ interference with the maestro’s wishes, but that wasn’t how Barbirolli recorded it or wanted it, and his wishes have been taken into consideration since the re-issue of the Mahler (coupled with Ein Heldenleben) on the double forte and then the gEMIni series.
Because I am too lazy to program my CD player to switch the movement order back, I have burnt myself a copy of the second CD that puts the Scherzo first. Mahler’s and Barbirolli’s wishes notwithstanding, the Scherzo second makes a lot more sense to my ears and Barbriolli’s interpretation is, ironically, the quintessential “Scherzo-Andante type” – which is to say that Barbirolli is solidly in the “grit” camp – an impression that is heightened in its relentlessness when the onslaught of the Scherzo follows immediately and mercilessly after the opening Allegro, rather than having energy zapped by taming matters with the intermittent Andante.
Like a possessed Bulldog, drooling over the orchestra, Sir John drives the New Philharmonia to a performance the polar opposite of the other Barbirolli Mahler-recordings on EMI. The sound quality was not terribly good on the Rouge et Noire release but thanks to the 2002 remastering job has improved notably in the subsequent re-releases on CD. Fortunately you can hear Barbirolli grunt, huff, and puff – because that all sounds appropriate in this performance, as does the less-than-perfect playing of the orchestra. It is wild-eyed, relentless; its teeth are showing. The first movement drags cruelly but appropriately to these ears. (The repeat is skipped, perhaps the sole hair in the soup of this performance.)
Unlike other slow and even many quicker performances, it never loses momentum or sight of the longer lines. Barbirolli unfailingly holds the tension – even as the symphony hovers beautifully in the Andante. It’s closest in vain to Dimitri Mitropoulos’ live-recording with the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln from 1959 (at time when “live” meant live!), itself a riveting, raw, individualistic (still shy of eccentric); truly an edge-of-the-seat reading. There are not all that many recordings of this symphony that are truly satisfactory. This is not only among them (Zander, Mitropolous, Gielen, Eschenbach, Fischer are, too), it’s one of the finest available.