Vernon Handley has excellent credentials as an Elgar
conductor, and his recordings have been held in high esteem for a quarter
of a century now. This reissue, which combines repertoire from two original
CFP Elgar discs, serves to confirm this.
The recordings have come up better than ever, particularly
those of the two tone poems, Cockaigne and Falstaff. The
two string pieces sound well too, though Handley's approach in the great
Introduction and Allegro does not achieve the incandescence of
the famous Barbirolli recording (EMI) from the late 1960s, which still
ranks as the benchmark against which others are judged. So too the Serenade
which is not as wistful and charming in its outer movements as with
the Academy of St Martin in the Fields and Sir Neville Marriner (Decca).
But the slow movement, which in so many ways anticipates later masterpieces,
is particularly eloquent and deeply felt.
What makes this CFP reissue so special is the general
authority of the performances, but more especially the breadth and splendour
of the two full-orchestral symphonic poems, Falstaff and Cockaigne.
The former tends to fare better in recordings than it does in the concert
hall, where it is all too seldom heard. For it is a complex and demanding
score, as evidenced by the intention of Mark Elder and his Hallé Orchestra
to perform it next season with analytical surtitles, to explain the
relationship between the music and the inspiration behind it (in other
words the story-line).
Handley and the LPO are quite splendid advocates of
this masterly if complex score. The playing is secure and the characterisation
of the music is keenly delivered, There is room for intimacy, as in
the two dream interludes, but for much exuberance and virtuosity also.
There can be no better way for the uninitiated to sample this Elgar
masterpiece than at the attractive CFP price.
If Falstaff is in some respects a problematic
work, Cockaigne lies more centrally in the Elgar canon. And there
is no question that it is a great work, which becomes greater still
with each hearing. And there is surely no better recorded version than
Handley's. Tempi are admirably judged, while the recorded sound is atmospheric
and truthful, with marvellous impact from the percussion. At bargain
price this is a really splendid disc, which it would still be if it
retailed as twice as much.
other Handley Classics for Pleasure releases