ENDNOTES, March 2020
Remembering Vernon Handley
by Stuart Millson
A recent BBC Radio 3 performance of a recording of Bax’s symphonic poem, The Garden of Fand – and my own replaying of a landmark recording of Tippett’s Concerto for Double String Orchestra – suggested an Endnotes column devoted to a British conductor who died 12 years ago at the age of 78, but whose legacy to the music of these islands continues to be felt today. Vernon Handley was that conductor – a figure, perhaps more than any other, who championed the overlooked music of Bliss, Finzi, Delius, Robert Simpson (the music-writer and BBC Producer-turned symphonist) and of Malcolm Arnold, Bax, Moeran and Warlock. It was Handley’s perseverance and early championing of Bax’s Third and Fourth Symphonies in the 1960s – the latter with the superb, semi-professional Guildford Philharmonic Orchestra –that marked this musician as someone who refused to compromise with prevailing modernist or continental trends; and who was determined to create a bed-rock discography for Britain’s composers.
After studies at Oxford (where he read philology) and the Guildhall School of Music, Handley embarked upon a career that reached pinnacles of achievement throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, principally with the London Philharmonic Orchestra – an ensemble with which he made dozens of records for the Classics for Pleasure label, and which are now almost all in circulation as EMI CDs.
Vaughan Williams’s Tallis Fantasia, A London Symphony and Symphony No. 6 (coupled with the composer’s rare, comparatively short, yet monumental in tone and scale, Prelude and Fugue) earned critical acclaim and brought a more adventurous repertoire to a label, previously associated with the symphonic war-horses, such as Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto or Grieg’s Peer Gynt. An account of Elgar’s Symphonic Study Falstaff, coupled with the Cockaigne Overture, “In London Town”, attested to Handley’s reputation as a master of full-bodied, often quick-paced interpretations – blazing with energy, yet suffused with a nurturing, cherishing attention to detail. When the conductor entered the recording studio for a 1981 Classics for Pleasure account of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance Marches, The Gramophone noted how these well-known pieces came alive again with an “almost baroque freshness”. Handley brought “Cockaigne” to the 1982 Proms, this time with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, along with the Tippett Piano Concerto and Sibelius’s Second Symphony. But a great favourite of Handley’s, which he did not get to perform at the Proms, was Vaughan Williams’ famous “benediction in wartime”, his Fifth Symphony, a work he recorded with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, a most satisfying realisation of that mystical score.
Handley’s first professional orchestra, though, was the Bournemouth Symphony, which way back in the 1960s and ‘70s fielded a smaller sister-orchestra, the Bournemouth Sinfonietta. With the Bournemouth musicians, Walton’s Symphony No. 1 was recorded for EMI – with Handley also deciding upon a revival of Delius’s oriental fantasy – a sort of Aladdin-style musical-play – Hassan. Forgotten since the composer’s day, Hassan culminates in a section in which pilgrims and traders embark upon “The Golden Road to Samarkand” – a prolonged, delicate rhapsody, in which the night-sky and perfumes of oriental gardens are conjured in Delius’s dream-like orchestration. Handley holds the atmosphere beautifully in this 1989 release – which is coupled with Elgar’s First World War escapist play, The Starlight Express.
Vernon Handley appeared with nearly all of the major British orchestras – the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (in Walton’s Mediterranean haze – Siesta); the Ulster Orchestra, with which he held the position of Principal Conductor in the mid-to late-1980s; and with the BBC Symphony Orchestra – presiding over a memorable Last Night of the Proms in 1985 – memorable, not least for a surprising inclusion of Gershwin’s Piano Concerto; and we tend to forget Handley’s dedication to many other non-British composers. Sibelius, for example, was a passion, although he did not record any of the Finnish symphonist’s great works. A consolation prize was, perhaps, his Bax symphony cycle with the BBC Philharmonic: Sibelius once commenting that – “Bax is my son in music”.
Vernon Handley was never knighted, but he was honoured by his country with the CBE; coming from from Welsh and Irish stock, he lived on the borderland of Wales and England – devoting many hours of spare time to ornithology and bird and wildlife photography. On a Radio 4 Desert Island Discs appearance in 1985, it was revealed that – when not conducting and recording – he enjoyed making his own furniture – another indication of Handley’s determination, in all things, to achieve a personal imprint and satisfaction.
Nicknamed “Tod” Handley (the BBC Presenter, Richard Baker, explained that this was because he “toddled” onto the concert-hall platform), the conductor created the conditions in which so many other musicians – British, American, Russian – took up the cause of British music, that it became more familiar, more accepted and more mainstream. A retrospective of Vernon Handley’s recordings is urgently required and we can only hope that BBC Radio 3, for one, will not forget this remarkable conducting talent. Editorial note; the BBC, like the Bourbons, has learnt nothing and forgotten nothing.
Stuart Millson is Classical Music Editor of The Quarterly Review
Delius, Hassan, complete incidental music, EMI, 69891; Vaughan Williams, Symphony No. 5 & Flos Campi, suite, EMI 9512.