A foretaste to the highly acclaimed Boulez 1996 recording with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (VPO) under Deutsche Grammophon (DG)? Perhaps. Like Boulez, Horenstein, and even Jochum (Novak edition), Barbirolli approaches the score with zest and a sense of urgency: a kind of dramatic exuberance that would compel you to rise up in a hurry and say Halleluja. But are their performances emotionally and spiritually detached from this glorious score? Absolutely not. As with Horenstein, Jochum and Boulez, Barbirolli brings out the humanity of the score and of Bruckner. Since when should we look at his symphonies exclusively as musical cathedrals with its majestic structures? Indeed, the magic of Bohm, Barenboim, Wand, Karajan, Haitink, and Guilini rested in their ability in sustaining the monumental grandeur behind the symphonies. But, Barbirolli along with Jochum and Boulez give us other dimensions of Bruckner that shall equally be cherished. Horenstein approach is a wonderful synthesis of the majestic and the drama. To some extent, so is Barbirolli's.
Michael Kennedy states in his sleeve notes that "For some conductors, the architectural splendor of Bruckner is their first consideration. For Barbirolli, it was humanity and spirituality." I agree to an extent, for the architectural splendor of Bruckner is inevitably a spiritual exercise deep in one's soul and subconscious (Wand, Barenboim (with the Chicago Symphony) and Karajan (with the VPO) are proven cases in point). But, Kennedy is absolutely right on Barbirolli. In the first and second movements, Barbirolli approaches them with fiery temperament and drive. His tempi are relentless and energetic, his impulsiveness obvious but never quite austere. His warmth is without question, though: the trio in the scherzo movement is nicely sustained and going to the Adagio, third movement, that sense of warmth is even more apparent. But, believe it or not, there is something of the architectural splendor in Barbirolli's approach. The dramatic edge of the first two movements and the finale are largely absent here. However, the passion accompanies the warmth admirably going into and beyond the glorious climax remarkably well-rendered here. The finale is exuberantly and idiomatically performed; it is well paced and dramatic and the ending lacks that Wagnerian grandeur that you'll see in Karajan's recording with the Vienna Philharmonic.
The performance of Barbirolli's Halle Orchestra is not entirely without flaws. The strings were not gifted with the sonority and the richness of the Vienna Philharmonic or the Concertgebouw. The brass is not particularly well-polished (a few crack notes prop up from time to time). But, the performance has fluency and commitment, especially given the fact that it was to be Barbirolli's last. The performance is not perfect. However, the insight behind it is special and Barbirolli give us as complete of Bruckner as possible. A hymn of praise no question about it.