Barbirolli and Vaughan Williams: the recordings

It’s always exciting when valuable documents suddenly appear as if from nowhere. Vaughan Williams music has of late been re-evalued and the dismissive notion of him being the leading “pastoralist” has taken a decisive blow. There were two descriptions around the time of the Pastoral Symphony (no 3), one the image of “Vaughan Williams rolling over and over in a ploughed field” (Hugh Allen) and Phillip Helseltine (the composer Peter Warlock) saying it was like a cow looking over a gate. Very deceptive. The Pastoral Symphony was no English landscape, but rather France in the depths of conflict. This is a depiction of the battlefields where VW spent time as an orderly driving ambulances, tending to the gravely wounded. It has been more aptly described as VW’s “War Requiem”, although that title probably really belongs to Dona Nobis Pacem.
John Barbirolli, “Glorious John” as VW referred to him when he dedicated his Eighth Symphony to his admired interpreter, did not record a VW symphony cycle. Commercially he recorded no 2 “The London Symphony” (twice with the Halle Orchestra in 1957 on Pye CCL30134 and HMV ASD 2360 a decade later)), no 5 (with the Halle C 3388-92 in 1944 and the Philharmonia no HMV ASD 508 in 1962), no 7 “Sinfonia Antartica” (HMV ALP 1101 with the Halle in 1953) and no 8 which was recorded at the time of its premier by the Pye Nixa label (NCT 17000, 1956). From the above a number of recordings are available on CD: nos 2 and 8 (both Pye recordings on CDSJB 1021 remastered by Dutton for the John Barbirolli Society) and no 2 on EMI CDM 5 65109 2. No 5 is available again on Dutton CDAX 8011 coupled with VW’s own celebrated performance of the 4th with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. No 5 with the Philharmonia is on EMI CDM 5 65110 2. The Antartica is on a two disc set including mostly VW but some Elgar: the Oboe Concerto with his wife, Evelyn Rothwell as soloist, the Tuba Concerto, The Wasps Overture, the Fantasia on Greensleeves and Five Variants on Dives and Lazarus – all well worth having! A live performance of the 8th Symphony is also available on ERM 181 from 1961.


A real find for me was a live performance of the 6th Symphony with the Bavarian Radio Orchestra from 1970 coupled with Brahms 2 (much better than the awful Vienna Philharmonic Brahms recordings!). This is Orfeo 265 921 8 which I found through the Chandos website. Another recording exists with the Boston Symphony Orchestra on MACD 251 from 1964. I’ve yet to track this down.
Another recent treasure unearthed was Vaughan Williams performing his 5th Symphony with the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Proms in 1952. This was recorded off air, but it is truly breath taking. The 1944 Barbirolli performance is to be treasured, but VW communicates with the orchestra in a really special way. Dona Nobs Pacem completes the disc on Somm, SOMMCD 071. By way of a make-weight Dutton found some recordings from VW’s attic including his own performances of the Wasps Overture and the ballet “Old King Cole” with the Aeolion Orchestra in 1925.
So this seemed to be the last word in a VW/Barbirolli discography yet along comes a new website called Music Preserved. Its first release of downloads included a Barbirolli performance of Arthur Butterworth’s First Symphony. Hang on a moment there’s something else. A 1950 BBC broadcast of John Barbirolli with the BBC Symphony Orchestra of VW’s 4th! So will the Sea and Pastoral Symphonies turn up? I believe JB had died before the VW Ninth has been completed so there could never have been a complete cycle, but judging by the Barbirolli performances of Vaughan Williams, and indeed Elgar there are glaring gaps.
JB recorded the Greensleeves Fantasia four times, and the Tallis Fantasia twice. The two are found together on HMV ASD 521 with the Sinfonia of London (1962), a recording which seems to have sold a huge number. On CD the number is CDM 5 67240 2. The Halle version of the Tallis was C3507-8 (1946) but does not appear to have been transferred to CD or even 33 rpm while a Halle Greensleeves (1954) is on EMI CMS.

2 thoughts on “Barbirolli and Vaughan Williams: the recordings

  1. reichenbach

    Barbirolli’s first recording of the Tallis Fantasia, from June 6, 1946, has been reissued in 2001 on Dutton CDSJB 1022, a 2-CD set from The Barbirolli Society titled “The Barbirolli English Music Album”. Other than the recording of Greensleeves from February 26, 1948, it also has the 1956 Pye recordings of Bax’ Garden of Fand, Butterworth’s A Shropshire Lad, and Barbirolli’s arrangement of Purcell called “Suite for Strings”, recordings from 1948 and 1949 of Ireland’s The Forgotten Rite, Mai-Dun and These Things Shall Be (all originally for HMV), an unissued recording of Elgar’s Enigma Variations from 12 May 1947, predating by a few months Barbirolli’s first “official” recording (reissued on another Dutton/Barbirolli Society Elgar CD) and a recording of Barbirolli’s “An Elizabethan Suite” from 5 January 1954.

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  2. dgrb

    “I believe JB had died before the VW Ninth has been completed”
    Given that RVW died in 1958 and JB in 1970…..

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