SIBELIUS:  Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Op. 39.  Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 43.  Symphony No. 3 in C, Op. 52.  Symphony No. 4 in A minor, Op. 63.  Symphony No. 5 in E flat, Op. 82.  Symphony No. 6 in D minor, Op. 104.  Symphony No. 7 in C, Op. 105. Finlandia, Op. 26.  Karelia Suite, Op. 11.  Pohjola's Daughter, Op. 49.  Valse triste.  The Swan of Tuonela & Lemmink”inen's Return from Lemmink”inen Suite, Op. 22.  PellČas and MČlisande Suite, Op. 46. ScËnes historiques -- Suites I and II (All' overtura, Op. 25 No. 1/The Hunt, Op. 66 No. 1/Scena, Op. 25 No. 2).  Rakastava, Op. 14.  Romance in C, Op. 42
HallČ Orch/Sir John Barbirolli, cond.

EMI CLASSICS 67299 (5 CDs) (M) (ADD)  TT:  58:48 / 78:21 / 78:53 / 72:11 / 68:31  (356' 44" 

All of these performances were recorded between January 1966 and May 1970—the Sixth Symphony just two months before Barbirolli's death. I heard him conduct at Bergen as well as Helsinki in the late spring of 1965, during centennial celebrations of Carl Nielsen's and Jean Sibelius' births (just six months apart: Nielsen on June 9, Sibelius on December 8). He made music vigorously despite appearing on the frail side physically, but then "glorious John" (as Vaughan Williams dubbed him) was always a wiry man. However, just 15 months later, he looked ravaged physically and sounded near death expressively at the inauguration of Houston's Jones Hall. His music-making had slowed-down alarmingly (a violist on my left whispered during Elgar's "Nimrod" Variation that the cellists' arms were going to fall off if Sir John didn't move on soon). Backstage he needed a tilt board and a sizeable tumbler of scotch to seem even marginally alive—crotchety, but still among the breathing.

I don't recall any of these 1966-70 Sibelius performances being issued stateside by Angel, although I was still writing a weekly record-review page at that time for the once-Chicago American, by then downsized as a tabloid renamed Chicago Today. Hearing them now I can understand why. Enervation prevails; tempi, with a single exception, are stretched to the breaking point. Paradoxically, though, Barbirolli could still make the finale of Symphony No. 3 sound authentically conclusive, the only conductor I've ever heard do so. Even Robert Kajanus (see the last paragraph) seemed simply to stop, leaving the listener hungry for a few more bars. But Lord, how long it took the ill and aged Barbirolli to get there! His first movement lasts an interminable 12 minutes, about three longer than average, and the second ambles and dawdles aimlessly.

This is a sorry pattern almost everywhere else, the lone exception being the Vivacissimo third movement of Symphony No. 2, which JB recorded notably in 1962 (but not for EMI). Here it is too fast, with the HallČ strings scrambling to prevent anarchy. No. 1 drags on for almost 42 minutes (and you thought Sir Colin Davis' RCA/BMG remakes with the Bavarian Radio Orchestra were sluggish!). No. 4 has impassioned moments—Sibelius in 1911had been surgically treated for throat cancer without knowing if he was cured, which surely kindled Barbirolli's empathy in 1969—but overall its heels drag. And so the rest goes—a 22-minute Seventh Symphony; a Fifth that sounds several hours longer than its 33-minute timing; a bloated "At the Gate" and protracted "Death of Melisande" from PellČas—the list is depressingly inclusive. Saddest, withal, is Sir John's swan-song Sixth, recognizable only at moments—a sudden chordal echo, a piquant instrumental balance.

Recorded sound is plaster-of-Paris frosting on a fallen poundcake. Everything sounds the same -- i.e., thick, dark and ponderous—despite differences in venue over a period of four-plus years. I wasn't going to listen to the entire set after two dispiriting discs until one evening I put the rest on the computer while downloading from the Net. In mid-to-lo-fi it sounded tolerable—a couple of performances even seemed livelier than my Main Rig! Of course I wasn't paying strict attention; but this, believe me, is music in my bones as well as my ears.

In better times than the end of his life, Barbirolli could be a persuasive Sibelian, in particular (for me) an Albert Hall performance of Symphony No. 3 for the BBC by way of WFMT, Chicago. I tried to save this on cassette when its quality became evident, but it ended up sounding muddy once I got tape into the deck. There and then, the whole piece was up to tempo with a climactic last movement instead of a motor that suddenly shut down—a performance someone ought to liberate from the BBC archives and issue on CD.

I can't think who, stateside, might want this EMI collection, even oldsters in Houston. My currently favored set of the Seven is Osmo V”nsk''s with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra, in state-of-the-art sound on four CDs that the Musical Heritage Society licensed from BIS, and recently offered for less than $18—which does not, however, include a steep add-on price per disc "for p-&-h," or state sales-tax on top of that, even though MHS has no retail stores in Maryland. Additionally I cling to Robert Kajanus' 1930-32, EMI performances (Sibelius' first champion, he died before recording Symphonies 4, 6 and 7, which were reassigned to Beecham, Georg Schneevoight and Koussevitzky, respectively)—vividly remastered and packaged by Finlandia some years back. And I still keep the late Sir Alexander Gibson's 3-through-7 on Chandos, with the Scottish National; the musical insights remain remarkable, even when he seemed to be pushing the tempi. Better brisk, though, than "glorious John's" terminal foot-dragging in a seriously unkind reissue.

R.D. (JULY 2000)