> Vaughan Williams Antartica Handley [CF]: Classical CD Reviews- July2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Serenade to Music (choral version)
Partita for double string orchestra
Sinfonia Antartica (No.7)
Alison Hargan (soprano)
Ian Tracey (organ)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra/Vernon Handley
Recorded in the Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool on 30 November and 1 December 1990
EMI CLASSICS FOR PLEASURE 7243 5 75313 2 0 [76’19"]


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Another in the series of reissues of discs recorded by Vernon Handley. With additional organ dubbed in from a session at Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral earlier in 1990, Handley produces authoritative performances of all three works from choir and orchestra. Whether the version of the familiar Serenade works for chorus is debatable, lacking the vocal variety of its original form for sixteen soloists (there is also a version for just four singers), but if diction from the choir is less than clear, their purity of sound and internal balance is more than just commendable.

The Partita for double string orchestra also had other guises, such as one for double string trio. It was begun in 1938 but proved troublesome and took another ten years before Boult broadcast it in March 1948. Somehow it has never caught on. Maybe it has been overshadowed by the Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, but its style meanders from his own individual one to those such as his contemporaries Bartók, Stravinsky or even Tippett. Of the four movements it is obviously the third which appeals most at first hearing, the Intermezzo subtitled ‘In homage to Henry Hall’ the dance bandleader whose signature tune ‘Here’s to the next time’ gets an oblique quote. Handley’s recording is justifiably still considered to be the best to date for this is a work that needs careful handling (no pun intended).

Vaughan Williams was a fairly prolific composer of film scores, eleven of them completed between 1940 and his death in 1958. Ealing Studios commissioned him for the music to the 1949 film Scott of the Antarctic, a subject which had long fascinated him. As his widow relates, ‘musical equivalents for the physical sensations of ice, of wind blowing over the great, uninhabited desolation, of stubborn and impassable ridges of black and ice-covered rock, and to suggest man’s endeavour to overcome the rigours of this bleak land and to match mortal spirit against elements’. The scoring is vast, the percussion department including the obligatory wind machine, but there is also a piano, organ, and wordless female chorus and solo soprano to add to the colourful effects of a colourless landscape. Each movement is prefaced by a text (Shelley, Coleridge, Donne, a psalm, and words from Scott’s last diary) which the listener is meant to read. Barbirolli gave the first performance in 1952, Boult soon took it up, and Handley made his mark with it twelve years ago in what is a compellingly driven account which will chill you to the bones in this reissue.

Christopher Fifield

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