Barbirolli and the Hallé Orchestra, Manchester


Talking to people about Sir John Barbirolli’s hold on the classical music audience in Manchester in the 1950s and 1960s, makes one realise why Mark Elder’s own achievement of building the Hallé’s current high reputation is such a feat. Getting away from the shadow of Barbirolli in Manchester has been a real challenge for all his successors.

For a long time I’ve wondered whether his decision to stick with the Hallé (from 1943 until his death 27 years later) had something to do with his baptism of fire with the New York Philharmonic. The Hallé wasn’t exactly the best orchestra in the world (those horns could always be relied upon to fluff at the worst possible moments) though he did some amazing things with them.

Of course he guested in his later years with many orchestras, including the Berlin Philharmonic whom he re-introduced to Mahler. I once read that Karajan only started conducting Mahler with the Berlin Philharmonic after Barbirolli’s death. If that is true it says something about the respect he was held in by the Berlin Philharmonic players.

A friend here in Manchester who remembers those days tells me that as a child of about 12 or 13 when he first started to attend Hallé concerts in the late 1950s, he was astounded to hear, mid-concert, several barks or grunts from the right-hand side of the stage. It transpired that the sub-principal double bass player was afflicted by some illness (Tourette’s probably) that made him shout out occasionally, and he was unable to control this. It is a measure of Barbirolli’s humanity that he seemed oblivious to this. Apparently the musician in question was a superb bass player whose medical problem was tolerated in the interests of the wider picture.

The record producer Suvi Raj Grubb used to tell a great story about Barbirolli’s own grunting. He said he once dared to mention it politely at a recording playback:

“Sir John, what are we going to do about your, erm, singing?”
“Singing? Singing? What singing? Can’t hear a thing … nonsense! I can’t sing.”

I had a Hallé season ticket for a few years in the early 1990s at the old Free Trade Hall. When the new hall was being built the season ticket holders received a letter asking for suggestions for the name of what became the Bridgewater Hall. My suggestion was that it should be called Barbirolli Hall. Obviously, my suggestion wasn’t the most popular.

Incidentally, my seat was in the middle of the circle about five rows back, a fantastic place to sit on a Thursday evening. One memory I have is of an elderly gentleman who I used to sit next to telling me how brave I was not to wear a tie. I think I wore a leather jacket the following week.


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