In general, given the choice, I will almost always take a live recording over a studio one. Yes, it may not have quite the same immaculate sound (though there are plenty of studio recordings that disappoint in this regard), it may have mistakes, it may have coughing, clapping and other audience noise, but what it may also often have is a drama and a sense of occasion that you almost never get in the studio. Of course, I'm talking about real live recordings, the kind that preserve exactly a concert, not the "live" recordings of today that are in fact cobbled together from a string of concerts (take the Concertegbouw's live Sibelius 1st symphony - four concerts over four months), perhaps patched after or with rehearsal takes; these are a halfway house sometimes delivering the worst of both worlds (although there are many excellent examples too). Still, I wish more of the orchestra labels would be a little braver and release real live events. Given the enduring success of many older, real live recordings, it is puzzling.
For this reason, I'm a fan of the BBC Legends series, which mines the BBC's rich archive to serve up genuine live performances although (a little unfortunately in my view) generally not preserving complete concerts. Following on from my post about great orchestras earlier this week, my iPod listening at work has been drawn one piece at a time from a selection of British orchestras. Today I came to the Hallé and instead of Elder, whom I've been listening to a lot lately, I turned to their extraordinary partnership with glorious John Barbirolli. Scrolling through the many choices available, one jumped out at me: a BBC Legends disc of Bruckner's 9th symphony.
Now, I actually bought the set for the Mahler 7 that takes up the first disc and a half, and I think it's possible I've only listened to the Bruckner once before. Quite why is now something of a mystery. The 9th is not my favourite and I've rarely been swept away by it. Not so here. Here is a 1966 Proms performance that is searingly dramatic, fairly briskly paced and utterly compelling (not to mention the fine playing from the Hallé). So drained is the listener by the end of the first movement that one wonders how the performers managed to carry on. Like all the best Bruckner interpreters, Barbirolli leaves you wondering how it is that lesser hands manage to make the composer feel a little samey. It also leaves me questioning how I could ever have doubted what a masterpiece the 9th is. So fine, indeed, that it's my first Album of the Week of 2011. So fine also that my first question on finishing was simple: did Barbirolli record any other Bruckner. A quick search of Spotify turned up a 3rd, 7th and 8th all of which proved to be BBC Legends performances too. This was a doubly pleasant surprise because previously whenever I've looked, I've not found BBC Legends recordings there. What better excuse, then, to pick through some of my favourites and share them with you. And, not just through words - each recording mentioned is linked to directly on Spotify and here's my playlist of the main ones. It's an eclectic and not particularly representative selection, and you'll doubtless notice a heavy bias towards two of my absolute favourite conductors. Please add your own via the comments below. (Apologies to readers on the other side of the pond and anywhere else not yet blessed with Spotify.)
A few years ago I prompted incredulity on the now defunct BBC message boards when someone mentioned the "definitive" recording of Britten's War Requiem and I asked if they meant this one:
They didn't, of course, rather the composer's own with the London Symphony Orchestra (and very fine that is too). I don't really hold to words like definitive anyway. However you define these things, Giulini's performance is something very special indeed. A little less than a year earlier, at the 1968 Edinburgh festival, Giulini and Britten had collaborated on a performance that featured the original trio of soloist for whom the work was composed, the composer directing the chamber ensemble. I know several people who were there, and a few years ago met one who managed to blag their way into the rehearsal. Clearly it was an extraordinary experience. Sadly the BBC's microphones were not there, but the Albert Hall performance from the following April is the next best thing and needs little apology. Yes, balance is less than ideal and yes there are some blips in the recording, but all of that is worth giving up for the passionate intensity you get in return.
Giulini, and especially his partnership with the Philharmonia, is well served by the BBC Legends catalogue. Perhaps nowhere more so than with this 1964 recording of the Verdi Requiem, my favourite of the four of his that I have. Indeed, both this and the other BBC Legends performance (from a Prom a year earlier) trump their studio counterpart with arguably superior sound, lacking the infuriating distortion to the Dies irae that EMI's engineers were unable to tame. Though recorded within a short space of time, it's remarkable how different they are. The '63 is stereo, and generally calmer and more beautiful. By contrast this mono performance from the Festival Hall (also available as a grainy black and white DVD), is phenomenally compelling and dripping with passion, the more so on the DVD as Giulini can be seen mouthing along the words.
Eugen Jochum has long ranked among my favourite Haydn conductors, as much as anything for his unique way with the minuets, seeming causing whole works to turn on them. His survey of the London symphonies with the London Philharmonic Orchestra is superb, even better then to have the same forces live. And, best of all, in probably my two favourite symphonies: the military (100) and the clock (101). To say the disc is self-recommending is an understatement.
Some time ago, I complained about the people in charge of EMI's re-issues department and the many recordings bafflingly absent from the current catalogue. One was Giulini's Brahms symphonies. The obtainable (albeit with difficulty) Vienna remakes from later in his career lack the verve of which he was capable. Just how much we are missing is highlighted by this wonderfully dramatic live first symphony from the same period.
All the recordings discussed so far are ones I already owned, but Spotify, in one of its most useful functions, provides a window onto recordings I've had my eye on but never got round to. I adore Barbirolli's studio recording of Ein Heldenleben with the London Symphony Orchestra, comparatively slow, but so incredibly heartfelt; this is an aspect of Barbirolli's conducting I find especially attractive and perhaps demonstrated nowhere more finely than here. Did I, therefore, need the live version, same forces, similar date? Yes, to put it bluntly. It gives fascinating illustration of how different two performances by the same conductor can be. Here we have a thrilling interpretation that shaves a good four minutes off the studio account. Indeed, next to what I was expecting, it feels like everyone concerned has taken some sort of illicit stimulant.
Not everything will be to all tastes and some recordings tend more towards the curate's egg departement: Giulini's B-minor Mass, complete with its leisurely pace and the reverberant acoustic of St Paul's cathedral is unlikely to be anyone's first choice, though it is not without its charms. Fortunately the performance of Berlioz's epic Requiem under the baton of Thomas Beecham was captured in the altogether better acoustic of the Albert Hall (from a recording engineer's perspective if not always that of an audience member). It may be in mono, but the detail is such that surely you can have few complaints. In many respects, the recording is at its most compelling in the quietest and most beautiful moments, though that is not to suggest the thrills are lacking elsewhere. If Beecham had any trouble keeping in check the vast army of forces needed to perform the piece there is no evidence to be found.
Jacqueline du Pré is perhaps most famous for her great recording of the Elgar cello concerto with Barbirolli and the LSO, but this performance of the Dvořák concerto surely also shows her at her best. On the one hand there is the unique and moving poetry of du Pré's playing, on the other is the superbly judged accompaniment of Charles Groves and the RLPO behind her.
I could go on, and on, and on, listing the Giulini Schubert great C major or his Dvorak 7 and 8, the Bruckner 7, or the Faure Requiem for which he is joined by the incomparable Janet Baker, Wilhelm Kempff playing the D960 and the op.101, Boult's great C major (I'm quite a fan of that piece). At this point, my brother is probably wondering what's happened to Cherkassky's many discs (I haven't yet got round to listening).
Instead, let's end where we began, back with Bruckner and Barbirolli, and the mighty 8th, recorded just two months before his death, not that you'd know it from listening. (Sadly his final performance, an Elgar 1st symphony and Introduction & Allegro, has yet to appear on Spotify.) Fitting onto one disc, though such considerations matter little when not using CDs, the performance feels fairly swift, though the perils of the multitude of editions are such that comparisons based on timings aren't simple. However, in my experience, choice of edition matters far less than the passion and structure the interpreter brings to it. One could not want for more of either than is to be found here. It, and the other pictured discs, can be found together on this playlist.
The bad points? Well, as suggested at the outset, most of the recordings mentioned have a dryer and more closed sound than would ideally be the case. Then there are the notable omissions: those looking for the Horenstein Mahler 8 or the du Pré Elgar concerto will be disappointed. So too with Barbirolli's disc of Sibelius 3 and Nielsen 4 and many more besides. But most of the catalogue is there and perhaps more will be soon, especially if they've only recently started adding them. Either way, sit back, pour yourself a nice glass of suitably aged scotch whisky (or relaxing drink of choice) and enjoy. (Please also see also this playlist by @ulyssestone which contains all the discs that are on there. It's big, so you may need to subscribe and then wait a little while for it to all show up.)
Doubtless there are many more gems waiting to be dug up and issued. Perhaps we may, in the next few years, look forward to some of those many BBC recordings which had the late, great Charles Mackerras on the podium....
Update - 2011/07/16
At least two of the discs whose absence I lamented have now appeared on Spotify: the Barbirolli Nielsen 4/Sibelius 3 and the du Pré Elgar.