ELGAR: In the South, Op. 50. WALTON: Partita for Orchestra. BRITTEN: Sinfonia da Requiem, Op. 20. The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra.
Hallé Orchestra/BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli, cond.
BBC Legends 4013 (F) (ADD) TT: 77:42  

The BBC Classics label has issued many treasures thus far, particularly Jascha Horenstein's Mahler Eighth and Sir John Barbirolli's Mahler Third. But here is another outstanding issue, a program of English music conducted by Barbirolli recorded from 1967-1970. These are live recordings and tremendously exciting, particularly Sir William Walton's Partita for Orchestra. This was commissioned by George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra who gave the premiere in January 1958. Later that year the composer gave the British premiere and shortly after that Barbirolli conducted it for the first time. The performance on this CD, recorded August 8, 1969 in Royal Albert Hall, is a brilliant achievement. Walton intended this to be a virtuoso display piece, and here it sizzles—the entire orchestra sounds as if it is having a terrific time. There are a few bits of untidy playing but it really doesn't matter. And the recorded sound is extraordinarily vivid, with particularly outstanding brass. The excitement of a live performance is always apparent and, yes, there are a few audience sounds, but it doesn't matter.

Almost as impressive is Barbirolli's authoritative reading of Elgar's concert overture In the South, actually a rich symphonic poem describing the glories of Italy. When this performance was recorded in Royal Festival Hall May 20, 1970, about two months before the conductor's death, it was new to his repertory, but one never would suspect this.

Barbirolli always championed music of Benjamin Britten conducting the premiere of his violin concerto in 1940, and the American premiere of Sinfonia da Requiem with the New York Philharmonic March 30, 1941. The performance on this CD dates from the Proms August 8, 1967 in Royal Albert Hall, and it is equal to any commercial recording I've heard. Surprisingly, it is mono instead of stereo, strange as the BBC had been recording in stereo for some years previously. But it is well-balanced mono, wide-range and satisfying sound, which also could be said of Barbirolli's rather ponderous, thoughtful interpretation of Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, recorded in the BBC Studios May 3, 1967. All in all, a remarkable collection of British music superbly played and, in the case of the Elgar and Walton, a treat for the sonic-minded.

R.E.B. (Oct. 2000)