Sir John Barbirolli: A Tribute by Bicknell

James McCarthy Wed 28th March 2012

Taken from the September 1970 edition of Gramophone Magazine

To me it seems incredible that 42 years have gone by since the afternoon when I witnessed John Barbirolli’s signature to his first contract with ‘His Master’s Voice’. This was not his first recording contract as a conductor, because before joining ‘His Master’s Voice’ he had made some records with his Symphony Orchestra for Edison-Bell, who were very anxious to retain his services and had offered him better terms than those proposed by ‘His Master’s Voice’. Happily for all concerned (except Edison-Bell), he decided to join us. Fred Gaisberg, never slow to recognise talent, realised that he had found a treasure: a young man who could accompany Chaliapin without provoking an uproar, win golden opinions from Jascha HeifetzArthur Rubinstein, Fritz Kreisler and Pablo Casals, and conduct one of the finest recorded performances of the Quintet from Meistersinger with the greatest Wagnerian singers of the day was indeed a treasure trove! While John rendered service to the company which was invaluable, we were able to advance his career. It was the influence of ‘His Master’s Voice’ at Covent Garden which ensured that he was made Principal Conductor of its touring company, and the powerful associations which he formed through his gramophone work with the soloists named above led to the offer of the direction of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

For many years his skill as an accompanist tended to cloud his talents as a symphonic conductor. When during the war he was the subject of a rough press campaign in New York from interested parties who wished to evict him from his post with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, they damned him with faint praise by exalting his powers as an accompanist and then implying that that was where it all stopped. Of course, this charge was quite unfounded, but nevertheless it made John very sensitive to this issue ever afterwards, and for many years after the war he refused to accompany anyone. He was even more adamant in his refusal if the soloist was world famous and in fact I gave up asking him to accompany because I knew in advance what his reply would be.

No one ever worked harder at his music than John Barbirolli, and never during the 40 years that I knew him did he accept an invitation to conduct any work, great or small, unless he was satisfied that he would be prepared perfectly and that he was capable of carrying through the project to the best of his considerable abilities. In other words, he was a man of principle on whose word you could count, in marked contrast to some of his colleagues in later years.

It did not surprise me that John knew all about Aida and the Overture to La Gaza Ladra or even La Mer (the work which he chose for his debut with the Royal Philharmonic Society – a wonderfully courageous act in those years for a young man) because, although born in this country, he was pure Latin, the product of the union of a French mother and an Italian father who had played as a violinist at the first performance of Verdi’s Otello. Much more remarkable was his deep feeling for English music. No one ever conducted Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for Strings as well as he did, and Vaughan Williams held him in high affection and esteem.

In fact, John was a fascinating amalgam of the English and Italian worlds, and he was equally faithful to both. For example, he adored watching cricket, and he was an enthusiastic Lords’ Taverner. When he was in New York, he was made an honorary member of one of the grandest of its clubs, which was run on lines very similar to its English counterpart, that is to say, it had a good library, fine silver, and quiet and efficient service. John told me that there was nothing that he enjoyed more than to creep away there after a rehearsal and go to ground in the library, which is strange indeed for anyone of Italian origin, because the Italians, with their extrovert character, must be the most unclubbable race on earth. On the other hand, he was very proud of his command of the Venetian dialect, he loved Italian food and was an excellent cook. In fact, he used often to carry his own pots and pans with him in the car, so that he could prepare his own meals in the hotel kitchen.

Many recollections spring to mind: obtaining for him the advance copies of Toscanini’s first recordings with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1929, going to Glasgow to hear him conduct a wonderfully good concert with the Scottish Orchestra when he was their Principal Conductor, travelling with him to Worcester to attend Elgar’s Memorial Service, and going to a supper given by many of his admirers in Canuto’s Restaurant in Baker Street to speed him on his way to New York when he was to take up his great appointment.

We had our differences and for a time he left us, but only for a few years and I was sure that he would return because he had grown up in the ‘His Master’s Voice’ tradition. In later years he greatly appreciated the devoted services of my colleague Ronald Kinloch Anderson, who will complete this tribute. [J.D.B.]

I take up the story of Barbirolli’s association with ‘His Master’s Voice’ from the year 1962 when he started again to record for us. Much of the credit in persuading him to do this is due to my colleague Victor Olof, now retired, who had come to us from Decca after a most successful career as principal artists manager there. Victor had known Barbirolli from his earliest days when they were both playing in small orchestras and John was a man who never forgot old friends. So, besides having the long association with David Bicknell he found another old colleague at ‘His Master’s Voice’ and this, I am sure, gave him the confidence to sign later a long-term exclusive contract, finally negotiated by the present manager of the international artists department, Peter Andry. 

He was always particularly keen to forward the activities of his beloved Halle Orchestra and although it was not written into the contract, there was an understanding that we would use them as much as possible in his recordings. I personally had known him slightly for many years, ever since his days as principal conductor of the Scottish Orchestra and I had also known his wife Evelyn since we were students together at the RCM. In a short space of time I was lucky enough to establish a splendid working relationship with him which very quickly ripened into a close and warm friendship. We worked on many great projects together – GerontiusButterflyOtello, the Brahms symphonies, the Verdi Requiem, Mahler 5, 6 and 9 as well as most of his other recordings and I can only echo the words of David Bicknell: John would accept no recording, be it a miniature by Delius or a vast work like Otello, for which he did not feel he had time for the most detailed preparation. 

Indeed, this led us into some difficulties with the first complete operatic recording which he made for us (or any other company): Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Both Victoria de los Angeles and we had set our hearts on John as the conductor for this but, although he knew some of the music, he had never conducted it complete. In spite of the fact that it is one of the shortest operas in the repertoire he absolutely refused to consider it because he did not believe he had sufficient time to prepare it. Thanks to the splendid cooperation of Raymond Leppard and a good deal of persuasion on our part, he eventually consented and this, in its modest way led him back to the path of opera for the first time in 13 years. A year or two later we had the opportunity, at relatively short notice, of arranging a recording ofMadama Butterfly in Rome with a splendid cast. In this case, luckily, we had no difficulty in persuading John to conduct since, besides having performed the work a great many times in the past, he had already arranged concert performances in Manchester for that season. The result, as everyone knows, was an outstanding success; indeed, I feel it to be one of his greatest recording triumphs. I shall never forget his tone of voice when, on arrival in Rome, he saw a poster advertising almost daily performances of Butterfly by the same orchestra and chorus of the Rome Opera (in their open-air theatre) whom we were using: ‘And I’m supposed to make them interested in that!’ One can only think now: ‘Well, dear John, you succeeded beyond all measure’. 

As in the past, so in the later years: Barbirolli was invaluable to ‘His Master’s Voice’. On the other hand we were the means, no longer of forwarding his career, that was clearly now unnecessary, but of leading him back to the opera, in many ways his most natural home. As a direct result of his Butterfly recording he was invited to conduct for the Rome Opera, in the words of the then general administrator, ‘Any opera you care to name with as much rehearsal as you wish’. These performances of his chosen work Aida happily took place as recently as April last year and created a sensation in the Italian capital, where such refinement of orchestral playing and such attention to purely musical values are not so frequently heard. 

He was a true man of the theatre and had time allowed, would undoubtedly have given us again many great opera performances. One which now can never take place would have been Otello at Covent Garden, again arranged very largely due to the success of his recording. Other recording plans dear to his heart but which we were unfortunately unable to realize in the time at our disposal were Verdi’s Falstaff, another Puccini opera and Bach’s St Matthew Passion, a work which in his later years he studied and performed with an intensity which rivalled his work on Gerontius. Now it is sadly too late but we must count ourselves fortunate in having recorded as much as we did. 

John never spared himself and every performance he gave was a fresh experience for him and his public. He told me only a few weeks ago, after he had been very ill, that he would much rather die on the platform than save himself for an inactive old age. So, great as is our sorrow and our sense of irreplaceable loss at his passing, we may have the comfort of thinking that he died as he would have wished: after a hard and successful day’s rehearsal. We salute a great conductor and a great man.

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