> Ralph Vaughan Williams - Edward Elgar [JQ]: Classical Reviews- February 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958):
1) The Lark Ascending* [14.49]
2) Fantasia on Greensleeves (arr. Greaves)** [4.10]
3) Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis** [14.41]
Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)

4) Serenade in E minor, Op. 20 [11.08]
5) Variations on an Original Theme Enigma, Op. 36 [31.00]
*David Nolan (violin)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
**Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
Conducted by Vernon Handley
Recorded: St. Augustines, Kilburn 24 & 25 June, 1985 (items 1 & 4); Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool November & December, 1990 (items 2 & 3); Watford Town Hall 30 & 31 January, 1983 (item 5)
CLASSICS FOR PLEASURE CFPCD 7243 5 74880 2 0 [76.19] Superbudget

The return of the Classics for Pleasure label is greatly to be welcomed, particularly since it restores to circulation excellent recordings such as these at an affordable price.

It seems incredible that Vernon Handley is now in his early seventies but, of course, he has been an important figure on the British music for many years. Although some, myself included, would argue that he has never fully received the recognition that he should have had, he has nonetheless made many important recordings. In the recording studio, as on the concert platform, he has been a consistent and doughty champion of English music and in the estimation of many people he inherited the mantle of Sir Adrian Boult. Like his distinguished mentor his performances have always seemed to me to exude an unfussy but distinct authority. His interpretations are always idiomatic and faithful to the score and, of course, the music of both Vaughan Williams and Elgar has been central to his repertoire.

The pieces assembled on this CD are among the best known and loved of all English orchestral works. They are all played here with fine feeling. Throughout the programme Handley directs with consummate understanding. David Nolan, then the leader of the LPO, plays The Lark Ascending beautifully. The larks rhapsodic flights of fancy soar and dip with effortless ease and with abundant poetry in Nolan's hands and Handley provides a most atmospheric accompaniment.

The two Fantasias similarly benefit from idiomatic playing and conducting. The Greensleeves Fantasia is a work of fairly modest pretensions but it is delightful. The Tallis Fantasia is, of course, a rather different matter. It is one of the small number of works which can fairly be said to have changed the face of English music. It affords a supreme example of one great composer being inspired, or, indeed, fired, by an illustrious predecessor. It is RVW's achievement effortlessly to bridge the four centuries between himself and Tallis and to create from Tallis essentially simple hymn tune a complex and timeless masterpiece. Handley's account is first rate, as is his performance of the Elgar Serenade which, in his hands, flows charmingly.

To complete the disc we have another mould-breaking English masterpiece. The Enigma Variations. In this, his first indisputable masterpiece, Elgar weaves a tapestry of musical portraits, each of which is sharply observed and characterised. The LPO must feel that they know this work backwards but under Handley's astute baton they turn in a fresh and winning performance.

Variation 5 (R.P.A.) is an example of this team at its best. There is a lovely richness in the lower strings and the winds are most characterful. The celebrated Nimrod (Variation 9) unfolds quite slowly but with an eloquence which is noble and unaffected. Handley builds it to a glowing climax which is filled out marvellously by the burnished tones of the LPOs horns. The finale (Variation 14, E.D.U.) is played at a steady speed for Handley is a patient conductor and in his hands the music is presented cogently. Rather than whipping up premature excitement, Handley has his eye on the final peroration (from 316"), which in this performance has an unforced dignity to it which I find very satisfying.

A fine Enigma, then to complete a most enjoyable disc. These are what I would term central performances and, despite the various recording dates and venues, the sound is consistent and good. Collectors wanting either a first recording of any of these works or an inexpensive alternative version will not go wrong here. Let us hope that the revival of the CfP label will soon see Handley's excellent accounts of the first two Elgar symphonies restored to the catalogue.

John Quinn

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