It is very good to have this splendid version of the Elgar
1st Symphony back in the catalogue. Handley is outstanding
in English music, though back in the ’70s when the recording of the symphony
was made, he was still rather under the shadow of his mentor, Sir Adrian
Boult, with the result that his reading was perhaps somewhat ignored in
favour of those by Barbirolli and Boult himself. With a little historical
perspective, it is possible to hear this for what it is – a mature, totally
idiomatic and deeply affectionate performance. It is available at a time
when, interestingly, we have seen the appearance recently of a fine version
by another much underrated English conductor, George Hurst.
It is Handley’s pacing of the work that is so impressive.
The opening presentation of the ‘motto’ theme is modest, unaffected,
beautifully judged in tempo. The ensuing Allegro is set at a tempo a
little slower than those of Solti and Hurst, though faster than Barbirolli’s.
Handley achieves considerable drama and passion at the main climaxes,
and creates a satisfying cohesion in this enormous movement, mainly
by keeping the music on its toes, never relaxing too much.
The scherzo is vigorous and rumbustious in its main
sections, and suitably charming in the ‘heard down the river’ music.
Handley is particularly good at balancing the texture so that all the
little details of orchestration can be heard and enjoyed, even in this
often very heavily scored movement. Elgar joins his two middle movements
together in a long diminuendo followed by a magical transformation of
the scampering semiquavers of the scherzo into the broad, tender melody
of the Adagio. Handley is superb here, starting the Adagio
very softly, and allowing it to grow. Some conductors make a very obvious
fresh start at this point, losing some of the tension and mystery engendered
by that long diminuendo. Handley understates the beginning, then allows
the music to blossom in the most affecting way possible.
The finale’s introduction creates a palpable sense
of anticipation, fulfilled by a main Allegro of impatient energy.
Again, Handley keeps the music surging forward, even when there is the
temptation to let it relax, e.g the Brahmsian second subject (track
7, 3:39) or the wonderful interlude before the recapitulation (6:58).
The impetus thus built up means that the final peroration of the motto
theme, when it arrives, carries its full weight, and the coda is an
impetuous rush of adrenalin – a thrilling burst for the finishing tape.
The orchestral playing is mostly of a very high standard.
The LPO has had a great tradition in this sort of music, largely through
its association with conductors such as Boult. There is a little scrappiness
in the upper strings here and there, and the balance between the LPO’s
stentorian trombones and oddly reticent trumpets is occasionally awry.
But there is also much lovely playing, for example the strings at the
start of the adagio, the wind solos later on in that same movement,
and the lower brass and woodwind in the finale’s introduction. The recording
is quite outstanding; nothing is missed, but there is a true and natural
sense of perspective. You feel you are hearing what Handley and the
orchestra are doing, not what the engineers have decided to highlight.
Little details, such as the bass drum rolls and strokes near the beginning
of the finale (track 7, around 1:40), or the harp embellishment in the
interlude later on in the finale, already mentioned above (6:58), are
all captured to telling effect.
The ‘filler’ is quite a substantial one – the five
‘Pomp and Circumstance’ Marches, sensibly placed at the beginning of
the disc; the finale of the symphony is not one you can follow very
easily, especially not with ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, albeit in its
orchestral garb! The marches bring the CD up to a generous 79+ minutes.
This recording has really stood the test of time remarkably
well, and does full justice to a distinguished performance. By my reckoning,
then, this issue can stand comparison with the very best versions of
the symphony currently available. I’d probably still take Barbirolli
with me to the desert island, but wouldn’t be that disappointed
if I was told I couldn’t have him and had to take Handley instead!
other Handley Classics for Pleasure releases