With Vernon Handley and Richard Hickox, two of the finest British musicians have died this year. Both were known - and will be remembered - for their contributions to English music which, even if this comes at the expense of their achievements in other fields, is fair enough because no other conductors contributed as much to the long maligned, longer still neglected canon of British composers of the last 150 years. They truly were, and through their recorded legacy remain, lions of British Music.
Below are select choices from their huge discographies (Hickox recorded over 280 discs for Chandos alone) with an emphasis on the repertoire they helped bring back to some deserved attention.
William Alwyn, Complete Symphonies, LSO – Chandos 9429
|William Alwyn is a wonderful composer whose usually tuneful, always romantic (but unmistakably modern) music is a pleasure. He made his living crafting excellent film scores (I Accuse, Odd Man Out) for which he became known – and he used his skill for engrossing movie-goers in his classical works like the symphonies or piano concertos. Lyrita (with most of its catalogue available again) recorded Alwyn’s music with the composer conducting. Chandos’ Hickox recordings remain the centerpiece of the Alwyn discography, although David Lloyd-Jones on-going Alwyn survey on Naxos offers an excellent alternative.|
Lennox & Michael Berkeley, Berkeley Edition Vol.3, BBC National Orchestra of Wales – Chandos 5014
|This series of the music of Berkeley père et fils is a wonderful tribute to both composers, whose difference in styles is perhaps a bit jarring on volume 1, but not on this disc bringing the father’s Third Symphony and Sinfonia Concertante together with the excellent Oboe Concerto and the festive “Secret Garden” suite of the son. Modern works, all, but more chromatically dense than atonal.|
Frank Bridge, Orchestral Works Vol.1, BBC National Orchestra of Wales – Chandos 9950
|Frank Bridge is one of the most tasteful English composers there are, musically elegant from his youthful Quintet and Sextet (on the “Best of 2004” list) to the late, Bergian string quartets. His orchestral works are worthy explorations, too, and how better to explore than with Hickox’ five-volume series of Bridge’s orchestral music. Volume 1 is a good place to start containing the smaller works Isabella, Enter Spring, Mid of the Night and Two Poems for Orchestra.|
Frederick Delius, A Mass of Life, Requiem, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra – Chandos 9515
|Frederick “Fritz” Delius was popular in Germany long before the English accepted him as a composer of great merit, which wasn’t helpful with anti-German sentiment on the rise around World War I. Sir Thomas Beecham’s advocacy helped a great deal in securing Delius a foothold on concert programs, although I’ve not yet had the opportunity to hear some Delius live. The grand Mass of Life – a setting, in German, of Nietzsche’s “Also sprach Zarathustra” – might be overly ambitious, but it’s grand and wonderful and it ought to be heard. Recordings exist of Beecham, Charles Groves, and for some reason I thought (but can’t find or otherwise confirm and am likely mistaken) Simon Rattle. Especially with the latter a figment of my imagination, Hickox is the only modern recording and not just on grounds of sound quality the first choice.|
Edward Elgar, Symphony No.3 (Payne), BBC National Orchestra of Wales – Chandos 5057
|Anthony Payne spent almost 30 years trying to patch together Elgar’s unfinished Third Symphony, with very impressive results, but results that are still hotly debated (more controversially than the various ‘performing versions’ of Mahler’s Tenth) today. It’s much more convincing than the (fun) Elgar “Piano Concerto”, but for all its quality, the second and third movements don’t ring true. No performance will ever silence the debates over whether Payne’s version is a success (as opposed to ‘mere attempt’), but this recording comes awfully close. It does so, because Hickox achieves to make the Symphony sound like ¬echt-Elgar, rather than collections of “Elgarian moments” strung together. The issue is made yet more interesting with the inclusions of two more Payne-elaborations: “So Many True Princesses Who Have Gone” and the Sixth Pomp & Circumstance March. The sound is unbeatable.|
Gerald Finzi, Intimations of Immortality, Grand Fantasia & Toccata, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra – EMI 64720
|Intimations of Immortality, Finzi’s ambitious, grand, and gorgeous Wordsworth setting, is a terrific oratorio (of sorts), woefully under-recorded. Matthew Best / Hyperion and David Hill / Naxos are excellently played alternatives – but true competition in terms of spirit comes from Vernon Handley’s just resuscitated Lyrita recording.|
Edmund Rubbra, Symphonies Nos. 5 & 8, BBC National Orchestra of Wales – Chandos 9714
|Rubbra is ‘tough’ music, but it yields its rewards – and it is thanks to Hickox (and Handley) we even have a chance to hear for ourselves. And if an English variant of Eduard Tubin sounds appealing to you, you might lap Rubbra up. The set of the complete Rubbra symphonies might be overkill for a newcomer to this music, but Symphonies Two and/or Five should be sampled. Unfortunately there is no coupling of those available, but Five and Eight (Rubbra’s three-movement “Hommage à Teilhard de Chardin”) are nearly as good an introduction.|
Ralph Vaughan-Williams, Symphony No.2 “London” (original version), London Symphony Orchestra – Chandos 9902
|Hickox was a master of Vaughan-Williams, and this, together with his recording of the Fourth Symphony (coupled with the Mass in g-minor) is the most successful and interesting of his near-complete (and surprisingly uneven) Vaughan-Williams cycle. The 1914 original version isn’t a better work than the tightened 1936 revised one, but if you like Vaughan-Williams and his London Symphony, then you won’t mind hearing more of it, with plenty new material thrown in and as passionately performed as here.|
You might also want to read Bob McQuiston’s reviews at “Classical Lost and Found” of Hickox’ discs of Richard Rodney Bennett, Arthur Bliss, Kenneth Leighton, Charles Villiers Stanford, and just in time for the season, a disc of Vaughan-Williams’ Christmas music.
You can find obituaries for Hickox in the Telegraph, Times online, Guardian, New York Times, and at the BBC website.
Malcolm Arnold, Symphony No. 6 et al., London Philharmonic Orchestra – LPO live 13
|Malcolm Arnold’s Symphonies are a truly great achievement, not just for an English composer. The music more the vain of Mahler and Shostakovich than Elgar or Vaughan-Williams, it’s as far from the “cow-pat” style of music (to use Elisabeth Lutyens’ devastating quip). His 9 Symphonies (11, if you include the Symphony for Brass and Symphony for Strings) have been recorded by Handley for Conifer, by Andrew Penny for Naxos and by Hickox (together with Rumon Gamba) for Chandos. Chandos hasn’t released a complete set, the Conifer recordings were (briefly?) re-issued by Decca in the UK, and the immensely attractive Naxos “White Box” cycle has been inexplicably taken off the shelves, too. Until they re-appear, this recording on the London Philharmonic’s own label is a very attractive introduction to Arnold conducted by Handley. The Sixth Symphony is typical of Arnold’s musical bite without being forbidding, the couplings are works Arnold wrote for the orchestra that plays them here.|
Granville Bantock, Complete Orchestral Music, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra – Hyperion 44281
|Granville Bantock wrote music that makes it possible to be a little embarrassed for liking it. Romantic, sweeping, emoting, eager – and sometimes a little silly, so caught up in how it wants to tell its stories (and apparently any grand, exotic story was good enough for Bantock to be inspired to write miniature-epics about), that the stories themselves (their particular flavor and characteristics) become jumbled in that romantic exterior. But then, who cares if this is not “great” music… it is fun music, and for the late-romantically inclined, at least some Bantock is a must. No one conducts it better than Handley (there isn’t much competition, admittedly), and this Hyperion box of all the orchestral works is a very desirable semi-precious in the discography of English music. To utterly fulfill your Bantock-needs, add Chandos’ recording of Omar Khayyám to that (also conducted by Handley), which made it onto my “A Few of My Favorite Things - 2007” list.|
Arnold Bax, Complete Symphonies, et al., BBC Philharmonia Orchestra – Chandos 10122
|This cycle of the English, wannabe Irish, composer Arnold Bax might be the proudest achievement of Handley’s recording career. Bax’s music is easy to appreciate: old fashioned (Bax lived from 1883-1953), post-Elgarian romantic music, with Bax happily dwelling on atmospheric moments in his colorful, large-scale symphonies. When Lutyens spoke of cow-pat music, Bax was certainly among the intended targets. But it is telling that what survived of Lutyens’ is her quip, not her compositions while Bax is still (or again) around, with his music too lovable to be neglected entirely. It’s well served on record with David Lloyd-Jones’ survey on Naxos (available only individually) and this cycle vying for top honors.|
Gerald Finzi, Clarinet & Cello Concertos, Royal Philharmonic & New Philharmonia Orchestra – Lyrita 236
|None other than (the very young) Yo-Yo Ma is the soloist in Handley’s first (and finally re-issued) recording of Finzi’s late masterpiece of a cello concerto. This was the first commercial recording of the work written in Finzi’s last year (1956), and it remains the best. John Denman plays the 1946 Clarinet Concerto – and it more than holds its own next to Thea King (Hyperion) and Richard Stoltzman (RCA, oop). This is unfashionably melodic, albeit dark, music by a composer more preoccupied with the urgency to express himself in an idiom of beauty than the musico-academic tussles that went on between Schoenbergian and Stravinskian composers at the time.|
Edward Elgar, Violin Concerto, London Philharmonic Orchestra – Classics for Pleasure 75139
|I am no particular fan of Nigel Kennedy, even as I appreciate his new infatuation with romantic Polish composers from afar. But he owns the huge Elgar Violin concerto – and if a top choice would have to be made, it would be between his own two, inspired, accounts of it. This one is the first, with Handley and the London Philharmonic is from 1984 – the other from 1997 with Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Between the free-wheeling re-make (from a time when the soloist insisted being called just “Kennedy”) and the attuned, precise, and generous Handley reading, the unbeatable price of this Classics for Pleasure re-issue might make the difference. Handley offers no filler, Rattle a leaden Lark (barely) Ascending.|
Ernest John Moeran, Symphony in g-minor, Rhapsody for Piano & Orchestra, Ulster Orchestra – Chandos 10169
|Ernst Moeran composed much music that is borderline “British Light Music”, which isn’t generally my cup of tea (though even a good number of those works are plenty delightful to my ears). His Symphony, however, is fit to compare with any of the great English composer’s attempt in the genre. If any symphonic work was meant to give the term “derivative” a good name, this g-minor Symphony might do the trick. Sibelius and Vaughan-Williams are obvious influences, and the result isn’t unlike one of Delius’ or Bax orchestral works. But it is darn good and this is a recording and interpretation that makes the work’s case particularly well.|
Robert Simpson, Complete Symphonies, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra – Hyperion 44191
|Robert Simpson (1921-97, not related to the conductor) wasn’t an amateur composer, but his day-job at the BBC as a producer, announcer, and writer surely gave him the liberty to pursue his extensive output without the pressures experienced by full time note-smiths. Resultingly, his 11 Sympnonies (1-10 in this set are conducted by Handley, No.11 by dedicatee Matthew Best), composed between 1951 and 1990, were largely out of date before they were even written, suffering from tonality and reasonable accessibility, as they did. From his brooding, grandiose beginnings to a more restrained and tightened idiom, Simpson wrote music vaguely reminiscent of the composers he wrote about: Nielsen and Bruckner. When I first heard them, however, my only association was that of a ‘grumpy, spiky Hovhaness’. Having all his symphonies might be overkill, since they aren’t all equally interesting – but most will yield enjoyment eventually and this box is a fine bargain. For the cautious, either the disc coupling Symphonies Six and Seven or Symphony Eleven with the Variations on a Theme of Carl Nielsen might be a fine starting point.|
Ralph Vaughan-Williams, Complete Symphonies, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra – Classics for Pleasure 75760
|There is a glut of Vaughan-Williams Symphony cycles out there, but even amid the competition of Boult (Decca), Boult (EMI), Previn (RCA), Thomson (Chandos), Haitink (EMI), and Daniel/Bakels (Naxos), Handley stands out as the most consistent and the most consistently enjoyable. It’s not as “tea & crumpets” (read either as “very British” or “boring”) as the EMI cycle of Handley’s mentor Boult, it is not as full of effects (for better or worse) than Previn, livelier than the very composed Haitink. If I listen to Handley perform Vaughan-Williams, I am reminded of Günter Wand conducting Brahms or Bruckner. Service on the music, without an ego interfering in the ‘interpretive’ process. Vaughan-Williams may not have needed Handley’s championing as much as, say, Bax, but in these readings he benefits him just about as much.|
I hate to not have given more space to Handley’s recording of Bliss’ “Colour Symphony” (the top choice for that wonderful symphony), or the completists’ dream of all the Charles Villiers Stanford Symphonies, but this list would otherwise get out of hand. You might want to check out Bob McQuiston’s reviews at CLOFO, though, who considers Handley recordings of Bainton / Boughton, Elizabeth Maconchy, and York Bowen.
You can find obituaries of Handley in The Independent, New York Times, the Telegraph, Times online, Guardian, and on the Arts Council’s website.