S&H Concert Review

Vernon Handley 70th Birthday Concerts in Liverpool
Arnold Four English Dances; Bax Symphony No.3 & November Woods; Bliss Music for Strings; Delius Brigg Fair; Elgar Introduction and Allegro; Moeran Overture to a Masque;Vaughan Williams Tudor Portraits, The Lark Ascending & Overture The Wasps
; Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra & Chorus/ Vernon Handley with Liane Keegan (mezzo) Damian Thantrey (baritone) & Sara Wolstenholme (violin) at Philharmonic Hall Liverpool; 8 and 15 November 2000 (RB)

Vernon Handley is well known to audiences attending Philharmonic Hall. In 1998 he conducted the RLPO there in Bliss's Morning Heroes and previously Holst's Choral Symphony. These two concerts were held as 70th Birthday tributes to Handley by the Liverpool orchestra. Handley, wreathed in smiles, gave a pre-concert interview before the first concert, in which he revealed how moved he had been by Gennadi Rozhdestvensky's BBCSO interpretation of the Vaughan Williams Fifth Symphony in the1980s. I should add that Handley has in common with his Russian colleague the obvious pleasure he takes in music-making. I should also add that Tod (as he is known) would have liked to have 'trespassed' on Rozhdestvensky's repertoire too as Prokofiev 6 is a work for which he has the highest regard. He revealed that he had always tried to include at least one British work per concert programme.

I first encountered Handley's name when reading concert details in Musical Times and seeing a reference to him conducting Bax 3 with the Morley College orchestra. When the RLPO first approached him about the birthday concerts, and said he could choose anything, he promptly opted for Delius A Mass of Life. When the management blanched after working out the cost he took pity and moved to something slightly less ambitious.

Handley is a Boult pupil and like Boult, splits the first and second violins left and right of the podium to excellent antiphonal effect (well heard in the Bliss and Elgar). The Bliss Music for Strings was quite glorious: burnished, flowing in golden tone (reminiscent of the 'immortal wheat' of Finzi's string writing in Dies Natalis) and clearly tracing its roots, more than once, to Elgar's Introduction and Allegro. Much to my surprise I was brought up short also by something quite unexpected: echoes or pre-echoes of Shostakovich.

The Tudor Portraits was a tour de force. As often happens, the works you expect to be impressed by do not turn out as expected while others overwhelm. I knew the RVW work very well and have always responded to the sorrowing symphonic weight of the funeral procession for Philip Sparrow. I had never heard the work live (in fact most of what I heard at the two concerts was, for me, the first time in the concert hall).

The work is a grand choral suite of settings of words by John Skelton (1460-1529) and if it recalls the Dies Irae and pre-echoes Orff's Carmina Burana (premiered two years later in Frankfurt, 1937) it registered very strongly indeed. The choir had great impact though word definition suffered (the men were not as clear as the women). The two soloists were steady in their voice production and imbued the sung words with feeling and meaning. Liane Keegan (mezzo), in especial, impressed with her security, precision and breath control. Damian Thantrey (bar) serenaded with a smile in My Pretty Bess and hoyda'd with the roistering best in Jolly Rutterkin.

The Bax (a work I know very well indeed) this time struck me as somehow diffuse. I was expecting a stronger hammering pulse in the first movement and a less languid pace in the middle movement. This was not the approach for which I had been prepared by hearing Handley's 1971 radio broadcast of the work (BBCNSO). The performance really caught fire in the finale and a steady fire it was too. The RLPO's first trumpet deserved to take a special bow for his perfectly balanced line (always a danger area - the first horn had problems earlier on) in the glimmering epilogue in which the conductor and orchestra created a magical skein of sound. The initial dedication to Szymanowski comes as no surprise at all. Handley has a special sympathy for Bax (he terms Bax 'the most neglected of them all')

The second concert started with a very rare opportunity to hear Moeran's Overture to a Masque (a work about which Moeran himself was unforgivingly dismissive, which Handley has recorded on Chandos with the Ulster Orchestra). In it Sibelius 3 and 6 rustle alongside Tchaik 5. This was most entertaining and the bubbling French horn whoop in the final bars was done with style. The 16 year old Sara Wolstenholme gave an accomplished account of The Lark Ascending. Her concentration held the hall. In Brigg Fair the fine web-weave brought to mind Delius's music for the Fountain in Flecker's Hassan. A zestful performance of The Wasps overture was followed by November Woods ('formally perfect' he describes it in the Handley interview printed in the concert programme) which was notable for the silvery and capricious solo work of guest leader, Abigail Young, as well as for the remorseless sweep of the great storm that wracks the trees of Bax's psychological landscape. The string principals then shifted chairs to focus the quartet role in the Elgar Introduction and Allegro. Here there was no shortage of grit, rosin and silvery yearning. This was the best performance of the evening. Glorious! Redolent of Ken Russell's filmed car journey to the Welsh hills in the closing sequences of Russell's outrageous 'A-Z of British music'. We began with whooping horns and ended that way too with Arnold's Four English Dances.

Rob Barnett

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