Reviews

GHCD 2254/55 – PETITE MESSE SOLONELLE – Rossini – Barbirolli – 1939

Westminster Choir, New York Philharmonic Symphony, John Barbirolli – conductor

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By John Quinn

I’m thrilled to have heard the Strauss. The Rossini is an interesting addition to Barbirolli’s discography but sound quality is an issue … John Quinn – MusicWeb International

I was very keen to hear these recordings for two reasons. Firstly I am a great admirer of Barbirolli and one who agrees, on the evidence that I’ve read and heard, that his New York period was nowhere near as disastrous as has been claimed in some quarters. Secondly, I am very interested in the American orchestral scene in the 20th century. Furthermore, the main work on the set is a piece that I didn’t even know had been in Barbirolli’s repertoire. However, although the set is of great interest there are some significant caveats to any recommendation.

Barbirolli here performs the orchestral version of the Petite Messe Solenelle made by Rossini himself. I must admit to some ambivalence about this version. On the one hand it does add colour and variety to the piece as compared with the original accompaniment for two pianos and harmonium. On the other hand, the orchestral forces and the full-sized choir that are also required change the character of the work completely. It becomes a public, operatic work; at the première there was a chorus of just eight singers besides the quartet of soloists.

The performance captured here was the American première of the complete work in this version. Rossini overtures featured regularly in Barbirolli’s concert programmes throughout his career and he conducted The Barber of Seville for the British National Opera Company in 1928. However, I don’t know if JB had conducted the Mass before or, indeed, whether it was a score to which he returned. He conducts with sweep and vigour and there’s evidence of some warm orchestral phrasing. The choir sings enthusiastically. In his notes London Green candidly admits that the solo quartet is “a varied group.” To my ears the young Leonard Warren’s singing is free and forthright but it sounds a little short on subtlety. Again, Bruna Castagna’s mezzo is a powerful voice with lots of presence. I’ll bet she was a formidable Azucena. However I would have welcomed much more light and shade than she appears to offer here. Charles Kullman sings the ‘Domine Deus’ with an appropriate ring but he comes across as a pretty one-dimensional singer. I’d agree with Mr. Green that Ria Ginster is the best of the soloists; she sings with more imagination than her colleagues. The brief biographies of the soloists mention their operatic experience, though Ginster was, apparently, a noted lieder singer. It did cross my mind to wonder how much experience of concert singing, especially in oratorio, each of them had.

The main drawback to this recording, is the sound quality. It’s clearly been a painstaking labour of patience and love to restore the original source materials. There is pretty much omnipresent surface noise which at its best is like a gauze curtain in front of the performers. At its worst – for example at the start of the Credo ( track 8 ) – there’s an abundance of crackle and the sound is very distant. I regret to say that it’s a long time since I’ve been so aware of sonic limitations when listening to an historic release.

The same is true for much of the second disc, which is quite correctly entitled “Barbirolli Rarities”. I wonder, for example, are there are any other examples of him working with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra? Unfortunately, the sound quality is so very poor that one cannot really form any judgement at all about the performances. The orchestral sound is distant and constricted and there is a good deal of surface noise. Though sonic matters are marginally better in the case of the excerpts from Parsifal the improvement is, sadly, only marginal. So once again I’d be wary of passing any judgement on the quality of the performances.

Happily, the Strauss items are preserved in much better sound. Indeed, the sound in these is, by some distance, the best in the whole set, which is ironic since these performances are chronologically the earliest. I would also venture to suggest that Rose Pauly is also the best singer on display in the whole set. She sings the two lieder very well indeed and is splendidly supported by Barbirolli. The closing scene from Salomé is searingly dramatic. In passing, it’s worth noting that Barbirolli plunges straight into the music at a white-hot temperature, clearly galvanising the orchestra; that can’t be an easy thing for even the most experienced of conductors to do. Pauly conveys superbly the frenzy and desperate lust of the young Salomé and sounds credible as a young (ish) girl. She sounds hypnotically evil at ‘Ach! Ich habe deinen Mund geküsst’ (Track 15) and then rises to a stunning vocal climax before JB sweeps the music to a hectic close. No wonder members of the audience shouted “bravo!”

How to evaluate this pair of CDs? I’m thrilled to have heard the Strauss. The Rossini is an interesting addition to Barbirolli’s discography but it would be idle to pretend that the sound quality is not a serious drawback. The remaining items are, frankly, of much less interest. The documentation and presentation are up to Guild’s usual very high standards though a text and English translation is provided for the Rossini only. The set will be of interest to admirers of Barbirolli but I would strongly advise sampling the discs fairly extensively before committing to a purchase.


Gramophone March 2004

Sift through this radio ragbag of Barbirolli performances to uncover a few gems
Confusingly, there are here two separate programmes packaged as one. The first disc offers a live performance of Rossini’s Petite messe solennelle which Barbirolli conducted in New York in April 1939. This is the headline item (misspelt ‘solenelle’ on the cover and throughout the booklet). The second disc, variously called ‘Barbirolli Conducts’ and ‘Barbirolli Rarities’, is given over to operatic extracts taken from radio transcripts of live concert performances in New York and Detroit in 1938-40.

Of the 70 minutes of music on the latter disc, only the mesmerising 15-minute account of the finale scene of Salome with Rose Pauly in the title role could be said to be of any real value. Pauly, a great singer the record companies forgot to record, delivers the text with a mastery of pacing and verbal colour a stage actor might wonder at and there is a superb hand-in-glove accompaniment from Barbirolli. The exemplary balance of voice and orchestra makes plausible a recording that, by any standards, is dim and restricted. Technically, all these recordings are lumber- room stuff: radio station acetates in various states of disintegration. To judge by earlier incarnations on LP and CD, the sound was well-nigh un-reproducable. It remains pretty awful (the Rossini especially so) though it is to Guild’s credit that the Messe now appears at the correct the pitch and the Salome scene is not faded out before the end.

The recordings would be fit for the skip were it not for the fact that there are bits of musical gold embedded in the wreckage. To judge by this tattered remnant, Barbirolli’s reading of Rossini’s Petite messe solennelle was on a par with his Gerontius: deeply felt and beautifully paced. I would mourn the state of the acetates less if a performance of this quality was possible today. Sadly, conductors of Barbirolli’s stature, who also believe in God and legato, are hard to come by nowadays. This is a performance whose spirit I shall treasure even though I have no intention of playing the disc again.

Among the soloists, Ria Ginster and Bruna Castagna are especially fine, though, sadly, the ‘Crucifixus’ and ‘O salutaris’ are among the movements worst affected by the grinding, Gale Force Nine surfaces. Charles Kullman and the young Leonard Warren sound well, though Warren doesn’t always sing what Rossini wrote. The performance, which uses Rossini’s own 1867 orchestration, has a number of internal cuts, added to which some choral and orchestral sections are missing from the acetates. The sadly truncated ‘Cum sancto spiritu’ seems to have been both cut and damaged. Another recording (suitably ‘distressed’, presumably) was used to patch some of the gaps but the restorer says it’s so long since he did the work, he can’t remember which he used!

For the rest, Met comprimario Katheryn Meisle sings Dalila’s famous aria with assurance and charm and Lawrence Tibbett is in better voice in ‘Eri tu’ than reports at the time might lead us to expect. The Parsifal extracts, by contrast, are of little interest. Fragments from an Eastertide concert performance of Act 1, they are notable only for Barbirolli’s skill in making an undistinguished Amfortas raise his game during the torment monologue near the end of the act.
Richard Osborne


BBC Music Magazine February 04

Its in all the detail
Guild documents JOHN BARBIROLLI’s early years in America by reviving broadcasts from 1938-40 of works featuring vocal soloists (and sometimes chorus). Barbirolli’s warm affection for Rossini’s Petite messe solennelle is very apparent (notably in the ‘Preludio religioso’), and contralto Bruna Castagna builds on his direction to achieve a finely shaded, nearly sentimental account of the ‘Crucifixus’. On the second disc in Guild’s set it is Rose Pauly who makes the best impression. She sings two Strauss orchestral songs and the final scone of Salome, where her sound is wonderfully erotic when she is not indulging in parodistically decadent tone. The Grail Scene from Wagner’s Parsifal is less effective, partly because Richard Bonelli (Amfortas) struggles with the German language, but also because Barbirolli is too self-conscious (and also unsuccessful) in preserving ensemble between disparate forces.
David Breckbill


MusicWeb 17.11.03

Many years ago I acquired a tape of this performance of the Petite Messe Solenelle. Expectation ran high but hope was dashed because the sound was so wretched that one might as well have been listening to a performance recorded underwater – and I never listened to it again. Until now. I dug it out to make points of comparison but I didn’t get far. Doubtless the tape wasn’t a first generation copy and didn’t necessarily reflect the true qualities of the acetate from which it had been copied. Nevertheless for all its manifold limitations – more to follow on that score – this Guild release has prima facie engaged in a little miracle of audio restoration. For one thing I was able to listen uninterrupted to the performance, now revealed as deeply human and powerfully affecting, and one that affords interpretative pleasure far, far beyond the commonplace.

Barbirolli remained proud of his performance of the work, and it was he who introduced it to the American continent during his second full season in charge of the NYPSO. They play the orchestrated 1867 version of course. Granted many would now prefer the original chamber ensemble, a kind of proto-Fauréan intimacy of twelve voices, two pianos and a harmonium but Carnegie Hall 1939 was hardly the place for that kind of thing. So let’s deal with the problems inherent in this broadcast performance, all dealt with honestly and straightforwardly in the notes. The Rossini first appeared on an Edward Smith LP – from which possibly my tape derived – which was full of distortion and missing passages. Finding the original acetates it was discovered that the Kyrie was damaged, as was the Cum Sancto Spirito, the end of the Gloria and other sections elsewhere were missing and there was a plethora of surface noise, as I can well attest. Richard Caniell was particularly inspired by the concluding Agnus Dei and I’m glad he was. The problems of acetate noise and constant scuffing still remain. There’s no getting away from it and on rare occasions the sound does come and go.

Still there are considerable rewards for those who are willing to accept these limitations. The choir is incisive, the orchestra plays well, and the soloists, though disparate in their expressive responses, offer a well-contrasted and thoughtful quartet. Bruna Castagna is impressive in the Gloria where one finds oft-derided Charles Kullman open-hearted in his replies (London Green in his notes finds him overly sentimental but I find him attractive). Barbirolli shows his mettle in a wonderfully buoyant Domine Deus where he gives Kullman expert rhythmic support and it’s just a shame that there are moments of distortion at the top in the Qui Tollis duet between Castagna and the marvellous Ria Ginster, whom I haven’t mentioned yet but who is the pick of the four singers. Leonard Warren’s warmth and nobility are very apparent in Quoniam Tu and the long Credo, though there’s some distortion in places, is illumined by Ginster’s expressive understanding and by the rigorous but animated fugal section at the conclusion. The orchestral Preludio Religioso is full of Barbirolli’s rich cantilena, his portamenti and diminuendi and the little violin solos that so conspicuously add colour to the score. And I do agree with Caniell that the Agnus Dei is very special indeed – above all here and throughout the work Barbirolli observes and respects the stylistic provenance of this work and doesn’t try to make grandiose quasi-opera out it. It is worthy of Caniell’s work in this restoration.

The second disc brings us Barbirolli Rarities in which he accompanies a variety of singers in more broadcast material. From the Ford Hour series in Detroit he accompanies Lawrence Tibbett in grave Verdi and manly Tennysonian Gounod (more surface noise here but it’s not really problematic if you’ve survived the Rossini). Kathryn Meisle is rather heavy in the Saint-Saëns but Rose Pauly is radiant in her Strauss songs and fully lives up to her exalted status as a Salome in the extracts from the final scene, a New York broadcast from February 1938. The Parsifal Grail Scene suffers from occasional distortion and there’s a difficult acetate join at 5.30 in the scene starting Nein!…Lasst ihn unenthüllt but Cordon and Bonelli are good but not outstanding. It’s a shame that the chorus is cut off at the end – possibly because of time limitations.

It’s hard to make a definitive recommendation – pro or contra – in a set of this kind. Its appeal will be limited I think to admirers of the conductor, who will be rewarded with very rare material, and maybe also devotees of changes in performance practice in twentieth century music-making. Those who value the work may have Chailly’s Bologna version of the full orchestration or the chamber force version (Sawallisch, Cleobury). It’s clearly been a labour of love to bring the Barbirolli recording to a wider audience and I commend Guild for having had the courage to do it.
Jonathan Woolf

Deeply human and powerfully affecting … affords interpretative pleasure far, far beyond the commonplace. …