> ELGAR Falstaff etc Handley [TB]: Classical CD Reviews- July2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Overture: Cockaigne
Serenade for Strings
Introduction and Allegro

London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Handley
Recorded 27-28 Sept 1978, St Augustine's Kilburn, London (Cockaigne, Falstaff); 30-31 January 1983, Watford Town Hall (Serenade, Introduction and Allegro)


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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.

Terry Barfoot


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