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Berlioz disc conjures up thoughts of Barbirolli and Halle

Last week I stumbled across a piece of information I probably should have known, but didn't.

It set me off on one of my wee trails into the past. I love these little trips. They have always been part of the work, of course, but have also always been part of my life.

The information that triggered me was a passing reference to the conductor Sir John Barbirolli having conducted Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique for the first time in Glasgow in 1933. It was enshrined in the liner notes for a recording of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique made in early 1969 with Barbirolli conducting the SWF Sinfonieorchester Baden Baden and now released on CD for the first time. That set me off.

I knew, albeit vaguely, that Barbirolli, who died in 1970 (and was born in 1899) had had some connection at some point in his career with the RSNO, then called the Scottish Orchestra; but I did not know much beyond that, to my shame. One quick consultation of Conrad Wilson's book on the history of the orchestra sorted that out. A whole chapter, called The Barbirolli Years, outlined the conductor's strong association, as guest conductor and principal conductor, of the Scottish Orchestra during the 1930s.

For those who like en passant trivia, incidentally, Barbirolli's first violinist and leader of the orchestra was David McCallum, whose son of the same name became rather more famous in his life as an actor, playing the role of Ilya Kuryakin in The Man From U.N.C.L.E., not to mention a string of Hollywood classics, including The Great Escape.

This is not a column about Barbirolli; rather it is about connections and links. Barbirolli's name is most associated with Manchester's Halle Orchestra, over which he presided for some 25 years. At which point I realised that, though the name Halle has been tripping off my tongue for most of my musical life, here was yet another character about whom I knew almost nothing. Who was he?

Charles Halle, a German pianist and conductor born in 1819, studied music in Darmstadt and Paris, and came to know all the big names of the day, including Chopin, Wagner, Liszt and, critically, Berlioz, whose Symphonie Fantastique of 1830 was a completely revolutionary masterpiece.

Halle, like many other European figures, left mainland Europe to escape the 1848 revolutions. He settled in Manchester where, 10 years later, he founded the orchestra that bears his name, and established his Halle concerts. Later, in 1893, he became the founder principal of the institution in Manchester now known as the Royal Northern College of Music, where many of today's musical luminaries themselves studied.

And it was in Manchester in 1879 that Charles Halle conducted the English premiere of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, thus establishing a real connection with the past, as Halle and Berlioz had been good friends. All of this revolved around my mind as I listened to Barbirolli's fabulous "new" recording with the German orchestra, which will be reviewed in the Herald early in the new year. It was one of those instances where the distant past, apparently so far away, reveals links that make it seem very close.

It happens all the time, and very occasionally that distant past can seem to be conjured up before your eyes. I experienced this in a conversation with a former principal conductor of the RSNO. Viennese conductor Walter Weller was born in 1939. In his younger days as a virtuoso violinist he both led and conducted the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

Many years ago, he recalled an incident in his youth when, as a learning violinist, he was visited at home in Vienna by an old man who wrote out a duet tune for young Walter and a chum to play together. The old man was Richard Strauss, and the duet tune, scribbled out for the two youngsters, was an adaptation for the beginners of the great duet from the closing pages of Strauss's opera, Der Rosenkavalier. While Weller was telling me this story, the world shrank and the past invaded the present: Richard Strauss had been born in 1864.

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