n 1943, at the height of the War, the London-born John Barbirolli had returned to England from New York, to take on the difficult task of rebuilding the depleted Hallé Orchestra in Manchester. His achievement in accomplishing the transformation of an orchestra that had suffered from the conscription into the armed forces of many of its male members and the uncertainties of public and personal war-time privations, was astonishing: within months, the reconstituted Hallé Orchestra under Barbirolli had given a series of concerts that heralded a transformation in British orchestral life, followed by two major recordings sponsored by the British Council – the first recording of a Symphony by Arnold Bax (No 3), and the world premiere recording of Vaughan Williams’s Fifth Symphony, which had received its first performance in London less than a year earlier at the Henry Wood Proms, conducted by the composer. Barbirolli went on to conduct the world premieres of both the Seventh Antartica and Eighth Symphonies (the latter work is dedicated to him as ‘Glorious John’) – but it was not until 1950 that Barbirolli conducted the Fourth Symphony for the first time.
Earlier issues from the Barbirolli Society have documented the conductor’s deep empathy with the Vaughan Williams’s music. Barbirolli’s performance of the Fourth Symphony is, overall, almost five-and-a-half minutes longer than the composer’s own, yet it is no less overwhelmingly powerful, if less concentrated in its fury. Barbirolli digs deep into this work, and the result is a performance that must have delighted the composer, for existing correspondence between the two men around that time acknowledges the composer’s heartfelt thanks to the conductor in programming all six (then) extant symphonies in the first Hallé season in the new Free Trade Hall marking Vaughan Williams’s 80th birthday in 1952. In February, 1953, Barbirolli and the Hallé were to give the premiere of the Seventh Symphony (recording it for HMV soon afterwards).
Arthur Benjamin’s Symphony is a fine work, deeply serious and cogently argued, and there is no doubt that – despite the inevitable shortcomings in broadcast sound of well over 60 years ago – Barbirolli gives a staggeringly impressive and committed premiere of the music.