SIBELIUS Symphonies Nos 2 & 5 – Barbirolli
In the pantheon of essential Sibelius recordings, Barbirolli’s October 1962 account of the Second Symphony with the RPO deservedly occupies a place of honour. Set down at Walthamstow for Reader’s Digest with Charles Gerhardt producing and Decca’s legendary Kenneth Wilkinson as balance engineer, it finds Sir John at his inspirational best in a reading which marries outsize but never wilful temperament to edge-of-seat spontaneity and keen poetic instinct.
Like Pierre Monteux’s equally big-hearted LSO version for Decca from roughly the same era (part of an unmissable Original Masters box), the experience is very much akin to attending a live concert of one’s dreams. The deceptively tricky slow movement is particularly remarkable for its daring flexibility of pulse and line yet never threatens to run aground, while the stirring finale (its big string tune so fervently sung both times round) will have you on your feet long before the end. If you haven’t yet made this famous performance’s acquaintance, don’t hesitate for an instant.
The coupling is a Fifth Symphony with Barbirolli’s beloved Hallé from the 1968 Proms which, in strength of personality and palpable depth of feeling, has a lot going for it. As on this team’s 1966 EMI recording (7/00), the opening pages have exactly the right sense of awe-struck wonder and pregnant growth, and in the second movement it’s a joy to hear Sibelius’s delicious pizzicato writing “speak” with such clarity and eloquence. The first half of the finale has vitality and atmosphere in abundance, but I personally crave a greater nobility of utterance in the towering epilogue (the principal trumpet’s spurious – and, to my ears, vulgar – top G at 6 after fig R or 8'28" never helps). A commendably unbronchial audience roars its approval. Despite any minor quibbles, JB’s many fans should be well pleased that Testament has salvaged such a typically vibrant display from the BBC vaults.