Sir John was born in Holborn, London, on 2 December 1899. His father and grandfather were both professional violinists who had settled in London from Italy and were employed in theatre orchestras around the West End. They had also been members of the orchestra at La Scala Opera House in Milan and had played under Arturo Toscanini. Barbirolli's mother came from a town on the Atlantic coast in the south-west of France.
The EMI Classics catalogue of recordings includes many unique treasures by most of the great musicians of the 20th century, but few are greater than those made for the Company by Sir John. This set not only includes some of the truly incomparable interpretations he made for EMI but also some he made during the period he was with Pye. Many of these are with his beloved Hallé Orchestra, the orchestra with which he became most closely associated during the last 30 years of his life.
Barbirolli had an enormous love of English music and was one of its greatest exponents. More than any other conductor he revived the public's affection for the music of Elgar back in the 60s, when EMI issued his irreplaceable Elgar recordings, virtually all of which have never been out of the catalogue.
Perhaps the best-known of Barbirolli's Elgar recordings is that of the Cello Concerto with the young Jacqueline du Pré. In this set we have taken the opportunity to re-issue the earlier recording of the Concerto with André Navarra. This is a marvellous performance that has largely been over-shadowed by the du Pré, but it is no less excellent and deserving of wider appreciation.
The music of Delius was another of Barbirolli's great loves and his recordings rival those by Beecham, who was regarded as Delius's prime advocate. Here we have two works by Delius: the beautiful orchestral interlude from the opera A Village
Romeo and Juliet and one of his longer tone poems. Barbirolli's final recording was of music by Delius, made in the month of his death.
Vaughan Williams's music had a prominent place in Barbirolli's repertoire and, being a Londoner, the London Symphony had a very special place in Sir John's affections. His excellent 1957 Pye recording with the Hallé Orchestra is featured here. Barbirolli made the first ever recording of the Fifth Symphony for EMI in 1944 and it was this 1962 Philharmoniarecording that marked his return to EMI, after a seven year period of recording for Pye.
As well as these three great English composers we also have music by Bax, Butterworth and Ireland, whose music was also very close to Sir John's heart. The recordings of Bax's The Garden of Fand and Butterworth's A Shropshire Lad are being released on CD for the first time.
English music was not the only great love of Sir John's life. From early in his career he championed the music of Sibelius and recorded some of its greatest interpretations. His 1962 recording of the Second Symphony, made with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra for Reader's Digest, has still to be surpassed, and the Violin Concerto he did with Ida Haendel for EMI is still among the best. Sibelius is here represented with a selection of short orchestral pieces, most notable amongst which is a stunning performance of Pohjola's Daughter. French music, too, was another musical genre in which Sir John excelled and the recordings he made for Pye in the late 50s received rave reviews when they were first issued.
In the mid-sixties EMI went with Sir John to Vienna to record a very successful cycle of Brahms's Symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. The recordings were singled out not only for the quality of the orchestral playing but also for the excellent quality of the recorded sound; this version of No.3 was reckoned to be the best of the interpretations.
Tchaikovsky is not a composer one necessarily associates with Barbirolli but the 1957 recording of Symphony No.4 that he made with the Hallé is an exceptionally exciting performance. The 1964 recording of the popular Serenade for Strings, made with the London Symphony Orchestra, is extremely fine with an exquisite third movement.
Barbirolli came late to the music of Mahler and it was not until he was in his sixties that he made the first of only a handful of marvellous recordings. He made this recording of the Fifth, and the Five Rückert Lieder with Janet Baker and the NewPhilharmonia, just a year before he died.
Throughout his life Sir John loved to conduct operas, especially those by Verdi and Puccini, and it is only fitting that we should include on the final disc of this set some excerpts from one of the finest Butterfly recordings ever made.