Memories - Handley, Sheffield 1990

Even in 1990 before he had completed his recorded Vaughan Williams symphony cycle on CD I knew I had to get to this concert in Sheffield. Ashamedly it was the one and only time I saw Handley conduct but it was some privelage to hear him conduct three works by a composer whom he had championed for years. Though not his favourite bad had that honour, Vaughan Williams benefited from Handley's advocacy more I think than any composer and Handley showed us a new way with RVW distinctly more adventurous than his mentor Boult. 

Handley was the man who drew me into classical way by an extraordinary route. I had dabbled around the margins of classical music with records of The Planets and Beethoven's Pastoral symphony and the like, but I wanted to try something more testing after getting under the skin of The Planets - and on the EMI budget label I found Handley's earlier recording on Vaughan Williams Sixth Symphony (with the LPO). I couldn't believe what I heard when I put that record on - and I still can't in many ways. Handley was a visceral conductor of Vaughan Williams - nothing barnyard pastoral about his earthly style - it was little short of brutal at its most disturbing. And though never unsophisticated it was always plain speaking and tremendously disciplined.

The City Hall in Sheffield remains a very difficult hall acoustically but Handley had a unique set up for the Tallis Fantasia - with two orchestras on stage and the four soloists on two raised sections above the orchestra. From my seat in the stalls it sounded very good. Moreover in the programme - somewhat curiously - I've written quote "v good! fast at the climax? Sexy!" end quote. It's only in recent years that Vaughan Williams the flirt has come to wider appreciation. There is an almost Bachanalian aspect to some of his music, and this work has a unspoken sensual quality, unsaid I think because of its quasi-religious associations. Anyway, however misguided or insightful I may have been that's what I felt on the night.

The oboe concerto was new to me and I was immediately won over by it's sparkling lyricism and easy delightful charm. The soloist Jonathan Small was at the time, and still is principal oboe of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and later went on to record the concerto for EMI under Handley.

The main reason to be there was the second half, The Sea Symphony was only familiar to me through the Boult recording (sturdy) and an off air recording by, BBC Symphony under Sir John Pritchard - a bit wet (but not in a good way). Handley and the orchestra were magnificent - as were the soloists. The Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus were clear, vivid and powerful. At that time I worked with a member of the chorus and she described a little of Handley's choral conducting style - positive and enthusiastic of course - seldom technical: he encouraged the choir to watch the baton, describing it as electric and having life of it's own.  The work of choir in this work is rich and varied - a full throated lusty sing in the Scherzo and a hazy, complex English ecclesiastical style moments later in "O vast rondure" at the beginning of the fourth movement. I was struck by the great unity of the Sheffield voices, the pin sharp brass and most of all a woodwind section that added so much to the score. Sorry to say Handley's subsequent recording (which had to be remastered within weeks of it's first release) didn't really capture the winds in full flight as I heard them.

I had heard many voices of Vaughan Williams in these three works alone. It was my one experience in the flesh of a vigorous clever and unique figure in English music and I was glad to hear him in his pomp.

Also in this series of Memories

Karajan London 1988


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