Even someone who has come to admire the BBC's releases of live concerts under Sir John Barbirolli will be stunned by what we have here. At the height of his powers Barbirolli was overshadowed, so far as the major labels were concerned, by Boult and Klemperer. EMI was slow to recognize that they had a great Mahlerian on their hands, so it's sad that he was about to record the Seventh Sym. with the Berlin Phil. before he died in 1970. A slow and careful student of scores, Barbirolli only felt up to the Seventh in 1960, when this live recording was taped with a combination of the BBC Northern Symphony and is own Halle Orchestra. The result is a stunningly personal reading that keeps the listener on the edge of his eat awaiting the next phrase. Barbirolli surpasses many famous Mahler conductors in his capacity to speak the language of this tempestuous, multi-dimensional, turbulent and contradictory composer. At a time when the Seventh was barely known in England - and liable to scornful and baffled criticism - Barbirolli miraculously jumps ahead, bounding over technical limitations the same way that Horenstein could. If there is such a thing as capturing the spirit of Mahler, here it is.
One has to speak of technical limitations, because in good conscience the doubled orchestras, while spirited and totally committed, fall short of modern standards in their execution (the tenor horn doesn't fluff his opening solo, thankfully, but the trumpets have ragged lips in the finale). As for the sound, the BBC turned to a private tape made off the radio in mono. Luckily, everything is well balanced, clear, and in tune. If you can accept Mahler's vast conception without stereo, this is far better than historical sound. The only other issue is tempo. Klemperer made a notoriously slow Mahler Seventh that many critics dismissed out of hand while a few adored it. Barbirolli is almost as slow, but he takes the extra time to relish and underline Mahler's strange, haunted, and ultimately moving ideas. (This isn't a case of Celibidache trying to create a Zen mood, however. Barbirolli imparts more energy, not less, by being so intensely slow, letting us into an ardent love affair with the score.)
Once overshadowed by a critical cliche, the Seventh has shaken off its reputation for "difficulty" and for being "problematic." Great recordings abound, actually. The best that I know from the studio are Bernstein (two choices, the better one being with the NY Phil. on Sony), Abbado (two choices, the better one being a live account with the Berliners on DG), the young Rattle, and Levine. among live recordings, there's a stellar one from Tennstedt with the London Phil. on BBC legends. When you're listening to that harrowing account, it feels like the greatest Seventh of all, but Barbirolli's less tense, hypnotically enticing version is in the same league.
The pairing is a Bruckner Ninth from the Proms in 1966, and one wonders why BBC Legends squandered the opportunity to make it a separate release. Thee is an online Ninth with Berlin that is a stunner. the answer is that this, too, is a private off-air recording in mono, not an official one. Unfortunately, this time lightning didn't strike twice - the recorded sound is distant and limited in dynamic range, with some distortion in the loudest climaxes. Reviewers have leaned on the bad sound, but frankly, we would all cheer if Furtwangler's great Bruckner Ninths came to us in sound half this good. My only complaint is that the Halle sound rather distant in Royal Albert Hall (however, coughing is caught with vivid clarity).
As for Barbirolli's interpretation, it is heartfelt and very moving. How many conductors have been equally great in Bruckner and Mahler? Except for Tennstedt, my only candidate would be Barbirolli and Klemperer, although some might add Horenstein (we can't assess Furtwangler's Mahler, although he conducted a good deal of it in earlier years, leaving only the famous EMI recording of the Songs of a Wayfarer with Fischer-Dieskau). To both composers Barbirolli brings intensity and personal vision, which he almost miraculously communicates to the Halle, an orchestra that falls considerably short of the ideal in Mahler and Bruckner. For some, this recording will be too rickety, but once you are drawn in, the music-making is mesmerizing.