John Barbirolli

Mahler: Symphony No. 6; Richard Strauss: Metamorphosen

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To an extent, admirers of John Barbirolli's highly romantic style of conducting will be attracted to this EMI Classics twofer for his warm, darkly luxuriant reading of Richard Strauss' Metamorphosen; but the main draw here is the surprisingly modern and gripping performance of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 6 in A minor. Many experienced Mahlerians will find Barbirolli's pacing with the New Philharmonia Orchestra a little on the slow side, particularly in the heavy, martial tread of the Allegro energico, and consequently become a little impatient with his placement of the languid Andante after it, a choice more common today than at the time of this recording (1967). Fortunately, the break between discs mitigates the problem by separating the movements, and things definitely pick up in tempo in the sardonic Scherzo and reach something close to the correct speed in the astonishing half-hour Finale. More important, however, is the emotional impact of the music, which weighs oppressively in the grinding march of the first movement, intimates the devastation to come in the brooding middle movements, and hits with catastrophic force in the last movement, with its explosive hammer blows and nihilistic closing measures. But for all this performance's power and pathos, it's also worth noting that this is a remarkably clear and detailed rendition, bespeaking an intensely careful reading from Barbirolli despite the apparent fury that his interpretation brings across. Nothing is lost in the recording, which is rich, deep, and vibrant, and the sonorities of all the instruments are distinctive and feel immediate in the close miking. If this is not necessarily a Sixth to place at the top of anyone's list, despite being included in the Great Performances of the Century series, it is nonetheless a compelling take on Mahler's most tragic symphony and well worth hearing for the sake of comparison with other great versions.

Track Listing - Disc 2

Sample Title/Composer Performer Time
Symphony No. 6 in A minor ("Tragic")
blue highlight denotes track pick