Although Barbirolli’s achievement in rebuilding the war-ravaged Hallé Orchestra during the darkest days of the Second World War may remain the greatest fulfilment of his life, his renown as a conductor within the United States was not confined to his New York era. From 1961-67 Barbirolli was music director of the Houston Symphony Orchestra in Texas, holding the post concurrently with that in Manchester, and in 1967, marking the 125 anniversary of the New York Philharmonic, he was invited back to conduct the orchestra at Lincoln Center. But even before then, Barbirolli’s appearances in north America would seem to demand a special study by themselves, for early in 1959 he gave several concerts with the Boston Symphony Orchestra as part of a quite extended tour involving a number of the greatest American and Canadian orchestras, including those in Winnipeg and Vancouver alongside those in Detroit, Washington, Philadelphia, Boston, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York (where in the last city he conducted no fewer than sixteen concerts).
The issue under discussion commemorates a typical Barbirolli programme, given in Boston on consecutive days in January 1959, notable for half of it being given over to British music, in essence from the sixteenth-century to the twentieth. Barbirolli never ‘drove’ the Symphony No.2 by Brahms, which approach can be profoundly detrimental to its inner qualities – for this conductor, the nature of the music was essentially Brahms at his most lyrically expressive, and there can be no doubt that for the Boston players, Barbirolli’s view of the work came as something of a revelation: they had performed it under Monteux and Koussevitsky – string players both, like Barbirolli – but the Englishman brought something of a southern European nature to the music, allowing it to unfold at its own pace, yet at all times never allowing a trace of somnolence to enter his interpretation.
Barbirolli treads a fine line, but it is remarkably successful and interpretatively impressive, as the Boston players surely felt so themselves, for in a letter home to his mother, written in Boston on February 1, he said ‘…this Boston orchestra is perhaps the greatest of the lot…The other day after I had rehearsed the 2nd Brahms symphony the whole orchestra stood and cheered me for quite some time, and they have done the same at both concerts…It was lovely, too, to have both the present conductor, [Charles] Münch, and one of the past conductors, Pierre Monteux, both there.’ After that first concert, we learn that all three conductors had a ‘memorable dinner’ together afterwards – the conversation at which would surely have also been worth recording!
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