Among the several notable complete recordings of the
Vaughan Williams symphonies on CD, the Vernon Handley cycle has always
enjoyed a high reputation. This 2002 Classics for Pleasure reissue of
nos. 2 and 8 is a fine example of the qualities of both conductor and
orchestra in this repertoire and can be recommended without reservation.
Like his mentor Sir Adrian Boult, Handley's performances are distinguished
by an impressive sense of structure. In the first movement of A London
Symphony, for example, the numerous tempo changes are kept within
careful bounds in order to ensure that the musical argument remains
cogent. It is also clear that the conductor has insisted on scrupulous
observance of VW's dynamic markings, so that the magical horn calls
above muted strings in the slow movement, for example, are played at
a true pianissimo, rather than being romantically indulged, as sometimes
happens. The same care is evident in moments such as the great climax
at the end of the fourth movement, which is not as overwhelming as in
some performances, but rather paves the way, with absolute coherence,
for an affecting and supremely eloquent Epilogue.
The playing by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
is of the highest standard throughout, with notable solos taken by the
leader and other string and wind section principals. This excellent
performance of A London Symphony, in the composer's familiar
revised version, is amongst the finest available.
The performance of the Eighth Symphony, a work unjustly
underrated when it first appeared, is equally impressive, its Hindemith-like
tone and manner effectively underlined. There is a splendid solo here
too, in the Cavatina, from the orchestra's leader, Diana Cummings.
Comparison with the fine early (1959) Nixa recording by the Symphony's
dedicatee, Sir John Barbirolli, and the Hallé Orchestra, still
available through Dutton Laboratories/BMG on CDSJB 1021, undoubtedly
favours Vernon Handley, by reason of the greater sense of stylistic
familiarity evident throughout the latter's performance, and the outstandingly
refined playing of the Liverpool orchestra. The exemplary sound recording
on the Classics for Pleasure CD is by Andrew Keener. The liner notes
on the music, though comparatively brief, are excellent, and the praise
of the performances themselves which they contain is fully justified.
other Handley Classics for Pleasure releases