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December 7, 2009

Blast from the Past: Sir John Barbirolli

Various distractions kept me from my fabulous, much-in-demand series devoted to favorite artists from the old days, but I'm happy to resume it today with a salute to Sir John Barbirolli.

This English conductor left a remarkable stamp on music, especially, IMHO, the works of his countrymen (noble interpretations of Elgar and Vaughan Williams) and of Mahler. Barbirolli could take tempos that no one else seemed to consider -- a very slow scherzo in Mahler 1 or very, very slow march in the opening of Mahler 6, for example -- and yet could make them seem totally persuasive. He could get deep inside the notes to find fresh layers of drama or poetry. He had, in a word, style. I've never heard a performance led by this guy that didn't impress me in some way, from scratchy 78s to his late stereo recordings.

Last week marked the 110th anniversary of the conductor's birth (Dec. 2); he died nearly 40 years ago. He is well worth remembering now. I couldn't find much live-action footage of Barbirolli, but I think the clip of him leading the Halle Orchestra in "Le Corsaire" Overture by Berlioz captures a good deal of his beautiful music-making (ignore the misspelling of the piece done by whoever posted it on YouTube).

Then drink in the glorious sounds of two sublime vocalists who seemed extra-inspired when collaborating with Barbirolli: Kathleen Ferrier, singing what has to be the most stirring account ever of "Land of Hope and Glory," recorded live a couple years before her death; and Janet Baker, singing the profound Mahler song "Ich bin der Welt abhanden Gekommen":

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:10 AM | | Comments (2)


The interesting thing about "Glorious John" is that during his tenure as chief conductor of the New York Philharmonic he did very little Mahler, and only became a champion of the composer later in his career.

Beyond words!
Thank you .

My pleasure. TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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