The first CD in this set has performances from a concert in Lugano, in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, not far from the border with Italy, made during a tour conductor and orchestra undertook in 1961; it features the Symphony No. 8 by Vaughan Williams, with the rest of the programme music obviously more familiar to the audiences, music with which they could more readily judge the orchestra from Manchester, alongside Barbirolli’s own Elizabethan Suite, which the conductor had compiled and orchestrated from music by the English Tudor composers William Byrd, John Bull, Giles Farnaby – and ‘Anon’. As with Barbirolli’s earlier Suite for Strings, arrangements of pieces by Henry Purcell, this work clearly possessed affection for the conductor-arranger, for he recorded it commercially on no fewer than three occasions throughout his career. This was followed by Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol and an encore – Chabrier’s España – works that, for the audience, were well-known and lighter in vein than the unfamiliar Vaughan Williams symphony.
Yet Barbirolli’s choice of programme revealed his innate understanding of the Italianate character – the four works, paired into two groups of two (‘English’ and ‘Spanish’), have original and folk-like material at their heart (Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol also has a set of ‘variations’ within it), and share their composers’ individual use of orchestral colouration throughout – Vaughan Williams’s Eighth Symphony is certainly the most ‘colourful’ of his nine symphonies.
Two days later, in the more northerly Swiss town of Berne, the Spanish character of Rimsky-Korsakov’s score was paired in concert with the Italian Symphony of Mendelssohn – and Barbirolli conducts a magnificent account of the music. In Barbirolli’s hands, the first movement is taken very fast indeed – but the Hallé is more than up to the task, delivering a jewel-like performance that sparkles from first bar to last.