Recording of the Week Vernon Handley
With the death of Vernon Handley (who died last Wednesday aged 77), classical music has lost one of its finest conductors, a master of his craft and a tireless champion of British music. Indeed, Tod (as he was known to his friends) devoted most of his life to British repertoire and it is thanks to him that many of us have had the opportunity to get to know the works of Bliss, Finzi, Howells, Rubbra and Bridge. Of Handley’s 160 recordings, over 90 were of British music, including 87 works which had not been recorded before. His discography includes all the symphonies of Bax, Vaughan Williams, Stanford, Arnold and Robert Simpson, all the major works of Elgar and the whole of Moeran’s orchestral music.
After studying double bass at the Guildhall School of Music, he managed to make friends with Sir Adrian Boult and soon became his assistant. As a result, Tod learned restraint, and that the conductor's gestures should be only for the orchestra, not the public. Indeed Tod's podium behaviour was even less demonstrative than that of the great Sir Adrian.
Some people have commented that this lack of showmanship (combined with his devotion to unfashionable repertoire) impeded the advancement of his career, and it is certainly true that he never landed a really top job. However, his utterly reliable technique, combined with his profound musical insight and warm personality (not to mention his wit) meant that he enjoyed long-lasting and affectionate relationships with orchestras throughout the world, and his large and impressive discography bear witness to that.
Although he did of course conduct other music as well, his real forte was that span of English music from Stanford through to Walton and beyond, where he brought unmatched passion, lyricism and sheer truth to it. We shall not forget him, because he has left us with so many marvellous recordings of the music he did best. If you want to explore his recordings further we have a complete Vernon Handley discography here. I should also mention that - by sheer co-incidence - we’ve just started a special offer on the Lyrita label, on which he made many of his potentially more interesting recordings. There are some real gems in here, such as a recording of the Finzi Cello Concerto from 1979 featuring Yo-Yo Ma as soloist making his first ever recording. You can view all the Lyrita Vernon Handley discs here.