CLASSICAL Review: From Manchester with love

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The Independent Culture
NOT MANY conductors today could envisage the centenary of their birth being celebrated over an entire evening by fans and by a national radio station, too. And perhaps only in Manchester, where Sir John Barbirolli turned around the fortunes of the Halle Orchestra from 1943, conducting it until his death in 1970, would people still swap Barbirolli stories, fondly recall his Puccini and Sibelius, and even re-invent him in fiction. Such is the lasting impression that Giovanni Battista Barbirolli has made on the city.

The idea for this evening came from the Kent Nagano, music director of the Halle, who, eight years ago, was himself attracted to Manchester, remembering the Barbirolli recordings he listened to as a child.

But in spite of the tributes - Michael Kennedy, compere of the Barbirolli anniversary celebration, compares the conductor's impact on Manchester to that of football manager, Matt Busby - the mildly gruesome inclusion of Barbirolli's own voice echoing spectrally through the auditorium, and the presence in the audience of two widows, that of the conductor and of his friend, Vaughan Williams, made it doubtful that the evening would have had such wide appeal without the glamour that was provided by Barbirolli's protege, Daniel Barenboim.

Had Barbirolli returned to breathe life into the occasion he would no doubt have been pleased with the Bridgewater Hall, which despite some persistent acoustic mysteries and luridly pink-lit organ pipes, is such a huge asset to the city. Whether or not, as a Cockney (born in London on December 2, 1899) he would have been so pleased with, or even recognised, the "London town" that Nagano conjured up in the Cockaigne overture is another matter. Elgar's endlessly inventive take on the English capital, was turned here into a routine trawl, short on perkiness, subdued in grandeur and curiously lacking in affection.

There was some particularly beautiful playing from the Halle in Vaughan Williams's Symphony No 8, which had been dedicated to Barbirolli. The long lines of melody, spun into a delicately contrapuntal web in the opening fantasia, flowed seamlessly in the rhapsodic cavatina, and, in the ebullient scherzo, the wind sections added a vivid portrayal of the music's dynamic character.

As he demonstrated so admirably in the adagio of Brahms's Piano Concerto No 1, Barenboim is remarkable in his capacity for sustaining concentrated musicianship without exaggeration or sentimentality, although the opening maestoso played passage appeared less tightly coiled in weight of sound and clarity of detail.

The evening of reminiscences continued on BBC Radio 3 long after the live concert ended with an encore of a delightfully fresh Chopin's D flat Nocturne.