on 21 August 2014
I know this goes against the grain to say this but I'm not so impressed with much of Vernon Handley's Vaughan Williams' symphonic cycle: generally there are better versions elsewhere. All the more reason to cherish this particular recording where the cycle reaches its peak. If Vernon Handley sometimes sounds a touch diffident in the stormier works this is a particularly rousing version of the Sixth, aided in part by the bright sound recording.If the finale is not the most hushed it offers more than enough contrast to the three more agitated preceding movements. You have to pinch yourself to believe that Vaughan Williams was in his mid seventies when he wrote this. It's the most exciting and compelling version I've heard.
The final Ninth, in the same key as the Sixth, is a good match: more reflective albeit with some more violent episodes in the dark scherzo. The real draw here, though, are the outer movement, which are are more expansive than many other versions: I think particularly of Kees Bakels on Naxos who gives an excellent and tightly argued version but one that lacks some of the atmosphere in Handley's account.
Vernon Hadley makes the symphony appear far more substantial and, like Previn, he really makes the most of the ending. What a way to sign of a cycle with those harp glissandi and saxophones. What really seals this as a top version is how the finale is allowed to unfold from its bleak and thinly scored opening - similar to the finale of the Sixth. Handley, most convincingly lets the score flow into more heavily scored and dramatic later passages. I know some like to think this was Vaughan Williams consciously looking to death and consciously signing off: it sounds quite the opposite to me.
"Fantasia on Greensleeves" is a pleasant stocking filler and well played but the symphonies are the main attraction and you'll do well to find better elsewhere.
on 14 March 2014
This coupling of the two E minor symphonies is masterly. Performances are superlative (No 9 was recommended by Radio 3 Building a Library as the version to have) and led by a man who immersed himself in this music all his life.
The wonderful melody in the first movement of No 6 will be familiar to those old enough to have watched The Onedin Line; but this is no gentle piece for easy listening: though, as Handley observes, 'the human emotions are not on the front' we are led behind in a way that is not always comfortable. Both show characteristic signs of VW's ear for sonority, as the last movement's sustained desolation (No 6) and the prominent flugelhorn and saxophone parts (No 9) show clearly.
There really is no need for the 'encore' of the Greensleeves fantasia, delightful though it is. Either symphony alone is sufficient. To have both together and in such splendid performances is abundance indeed.
This well recorded pair of symphonies from 1994 has acquired the Greensleeves as an enjoyable make-weight in this reissue. This trio of works makes a strong claim to be counted as one of the very best of the Handley series of the Vaughan Williams symphonies.
The recording itself is clear and detailed giving good balance and depth of field. The sixth symphony is particularly successful by not adopting too fast a tempo in the second movement with its repeating and threatening brass and percussion interjections. Too often this can become a jolly sounding jaunt rather than the bleak landscape so well delivered in Boult's early recording with the LPO and with the composer present. Handley also secures exactly the right tempi and mood of the rest of the symphony.
The ninth symphony, with its backward glances and quotes is here delivered as a more substantial work than is often the case and avoids the effect of being a summary of past musical ideas. In Handley's hands it becomes a strong work in its own right and which incorporates elements from the past.
In both of these works, as well as with Greensleeves, the RLPO plays with complete commitment and with corporate skill to match the LPO and other fine orchestras heard in these works.
In conclusion, I would suggest that this disc is one of the best of Handley's totally fine series and is representative of the quality of the complete series. It certainly deserves to be considered seriously as a purchase as a single purchase and holds its own against both Boult and Haitink. For Vaughan Williams enthusiasts I would also suggest that the boxed set option of all the symphonies offers even better value and is arguably the best overall buy currently available.