I did not get to hear this recording when EMI first released it in 1967, and by the time I heard good news about it in the mid seventies, the company was no longer issuing it. Then, Dutton Labs remastered it in 1997, and I finally got to hear it. I have to admit it is seldom I am so completely taken by a performance that I am willing to recommend it as a top choice, but after several listening sessions with Sir John Barbirolli's Beethoven Third, I am inclined to do so.
Seldom do I remember just when, where, or how I first learned about a particular recording. Most of the time, it's something a record company has sent me for review. But when something like Barbirolli's BBC recording of Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony found its way into my collection, it was a different story, and I recall exactly the way it came about. I read about it in a 1973 book I still own titled 101 Masterpieces of Music and Their Composers by the announcer, commentator, and author Martin Bookspan (b. 1926). In the book, Bookspan comments on various pieces of classical music and makes recommendations for specific recordings. For the Beethoven Third, he wrote, "...my own favorites among the many 'Eroica' recordings are the performances conducted by Barbirolli, Bernstein, and Schmidt-Isserstedt. Barbirolli's, in fact, is the finest 'Eroica' performance I have ever heard, on or off records; it is noble, visionary and truly heroic, with playing and recorded sound to match. The performance has lost none of its power and impact with the passage of time. If anything, its stature has grown as far as I'm concerned."
High praise, indeed, from a man who knew music well. But for a long time it was a recording hard to get a hold of. Thus, it was with open arms and welcome ears that I found it remastered by Dutton.
Barbirolli's performance is a marvel of sustained coherence, a noble, heroic vision from first to last. The opening movement is as exciting and energetic as any I have heard, in spite of its being a mite slower than some competing interpretations. The slow movement, the Funeral March, is more poignant than I have ever encountered. Thereafter, the Scherzo is as joyous and the Finale as high-spirited as anyone could want.
|Sir John Barbirolli|
What it meant to Sir John, apparently, was something a bit kinder and gentler than it has meant to some other conductors. Barbirolli approached the work with a greater affection than many other conductors, offering up music of urgency and emotion, to be sure, but of resplendent love, stately nuances, and sublime caresses as well. It's not the kind of performance that sets the blood to boil, but it is a performance that is hard not to find appealing.
Take, for instance, those opening strokes that introduce us to Beethoven's vision of the emperor. With many conductors, the notes sound sharp and concise; with Barbirolli, they sound mellower, more resigned. It's as though the conductor wants us to know at the outset that this is going to be a more benign, more humane interpretation than you've probably heard before. The second-movement funeral march is more leisurely than most, too. Rather than bring out the stateliness of the music, Barbirolli chooses to bring out the beauty. By the time of the Scherzo, though, the conductor has picked up more steam and seems to want us to pay closer attention to details. Then we get a reasonably driving Finale, still not taken at a hectic pace but with a reassuringly triumphant conclusion.
So, Barbirolli's account of the symphony is more lyrical, more musical, more sensitive than we usually hear. Add to this a wonderfully alert response from the BBC Symphony, and you get possibly the most poetic account of the music you're likely to find. This was among the final recordings Barbirolli made, by the way, and it has an appropriately autumnal glow about it, with Sir John lingering over individual phrases as was his wont in later life. If the whole thing hasn't the tautness one cares for, well, that was his way. The performance is still well worth hearing.
The little "Elizabethan Suite," Barbirolli's own pastiche of various early seventeenth-century English tunes that accompanies the "Eroica," is icing on the cake.
Producer Ronald Kinloch Anderson and engineer Neville Boyling originally recorded the music for EMI at Studio No. 1, Abbey Road, London in May 1967. In the years since EMI released it, the recording has appeared in several different forms and formats from LP and tape to CD. As of this writing, one can not only obtain it from Dutton Laboratories, who remastered it in 1997, but also from HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers), who remastered it in 2017, and from Warner Classics, who reissued it in 2018.
The Dutton disc sounds quite good, and, in fact, for overall clarity it surpasses the newer HDTT product mentioned above. The sound has depth, breadth, and clarity in spades. It doesn't sound its age at all and outstrips many new digital efforts. That said, there is still an argument for the smoother, warmer sound from HDTT, which flatters Barbirolli's overall design. Both versions provide plenty of dynamic range and a fairly quiet background. I have yet to hear the newest incarnation on Warner, but I have not doubt it sounds good, too. In the end, it may be one's choice of price, availability, or playback format that determines which of the editions to buy. The main thing is that the performance is a gem.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: