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
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.