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Barbirolli conducts Bruckner Symphony No.7

BBC Legends, BBCL 4186-2



The only surprise on this disc is that the playing is not as wretched as it has been for previous Barbirolli/Hallé recordings of symphonies by Bruckner and Mahler. In every other respect, Barbirolli's performance of Bruckner's Seventh Symphony is a travesty.


A mere glance at the timings suggests a performance that is spacious; the reality is somewhat different. In the first and last movements, Barbirolli hacks away at Bruckner's score, fragmenting tempi so all that remains is an episodic journey when what Bruckner needs is a sustained line. Whereas virtually every other conductor in this symphony seems aware of the architecture involved, Barbirolli is content to simply build blocks of sound without recourse to an overall greater vision. Barbirolli's Allegro moderato, for example, has so many gear changes that the performance stalls before it ever gets off the ground. The Scherzo, the subject of a famous piece of archive film of Barbirolli rehearsing the Hallé, roughly around the time of this 1967 performance, is nothing like what he tried to achieve in rehearsal. Where he aimed for a butterfly effect in the opening bars of this movement in rehearsal, the reality of the live performance captured here is of rhythms that are both flat and opaque; this butterfly's wings have been clipped.


The only remotely successful movement is the Adagio, and that is sustained more by the power of the Hallé's playing than it is by Barbirolli's effortful conducting. If the string playing is profoundly dark, that is somewhat chastened by Wagner horns which lack even partially accurate intonation and woodwind whose projection seems oversized for Bruckner's orchestration. Neither are helped by the dense recording, very boomy in places, of the original mono tapes which sacrifice the upper staves for a sound which rises from the bottom of the orchestra.


Whilst it is true that Barbirolli was an early champion of Bruckner's symphonies, the composer's discography is not enriched by this performance. Better, if you can find it, are rehearsals of Beecham with the RPO in 1953 offering much greater dividends of a fine British conductor in Bruckner's Seventh.


Couplings for this disc are unremarkable, if better played, performances of Beethoven's Overtures of Egmont and Prometheus.



Marc Bridle