No composer of the past quarter century has served
the cause of British music more nobly than Vernon Handley, both in terms
of mainstream repertoire and in terms of allowing the public to hear
neglected music in need of reappraisal. He has not been alone, of course,
since Richard Hickox, Neville Marriner and others have played their
part. But no-one has done more.
Handley is a distinctive Delian, finding drama at every
opportunity and persuading his musicians to match his commitment. Therefore
the orchestral variations on a Lincolnshire folksong, Brigg Fair,
is music that suits him particularly well. Of course Sir Thomas Beecham
is always the bench mark for Delius aficionados, but Handley's more
thrusting approach is highly successful in this piece. It is not just
a matter of creating a lively drama; in the larger pieces such as this
the more poetic moments make a strong impression too, not least because
they stand out so well within the context of the whole work.
If In a Summer Garden feels less immediately
impressive, it is not necessarily Handley's fault, nor his orchestra's
(the Hallé is on pretty good form throughout). Rather Delius
left a piece which floats delicately for long passages, and which challenges
the performers to sustain and justify a duration of nearly a quarter
of an hour. It is a demanding task, and fundamentally a matter of matching
poetry with a sense of line as the music evolved. For it does not really
develop in the quasi-symphonic sense. Sir John Barbirolli, also with
the Hallé, was particularly skilled at this kind of challenge.
Back to Handley, and two rather good performances:
Eventyr and A Song of Summer. The former is an eventful
and at times dramatic piece, justifying its 16-minute time span, and
requiring the orchestral players to make vocal contributions on a couple
of occasions. The Hallé are on good form vocally as well as instrumentally,
and they sound as though they are enjoying themselves.
A Song of Summer is a product of the ailing
Delius's collaboration with his amanuensis Eric Fenby. There are few
more evocative and beautiful openings than this, and Handley judges
it to perfection. The performance continues to the same standard, and
is one of the best things on the disc, moving with subtle mobility and
well focused balance. Here as elsewhere the EMI recording supports the
artistic enterprise nicely.
The remaining items were recorded in London four years
earlier, this time with the London Philharmonic. All are well played
and help make this well filled CD an excellent bargain. Both Summer
Night on the River and A Song before Sunrise are tastefully
shaped, even if they do just lack that special Beecham magic. But The
Walk to the Paradise Garden, which began life as an interlude in
Delius's opera A Village Romeo and Juliet, is music which suits
Handley's approach to perfection. The orchestral tone has splendid lustre
and builds to a rich climax, and the whole performance is admirably
paced and shaped.
other Handley Classics for Pleasure releases