Saturday 13 September 2008

Vernon Handley (1930-2008)

I only ever encountered Vernon Handley, who died on Wednesday aged 77, once in the concert hall. In retrospect it was a thoroughly atypical programme from the conductor. It took place in December 2004 at the Anvil in Basingstoke. Handley conducted the London Mozart Players and was joined by trombonist Christian Lindberg (who stands out more in my memory of the evening for his rather unusual choice of dress - a very loud shirt and leather trousers). The programme included Mozart's 4th horn concerto (transcribed by Lindberg for trombone), Leopold Mozart's trombone concerto and finished up with Beethoven's eroica symphony.

Handley, of course, was best known for his love, and championship, of British music, from his cycles of Vaughan Willams' symphonies (EMI), Elgar's work (EMI), Simpson (Hyperion) and his award winning Bax (Chandos). Perhaps this is in part what left him more obscure than many others.

Handley, or Tod, as her preferred to be known, a reference to his toddling walk, was also well loved by orchestral musicians, though he never rose to terribly prestigious appointments or high honours (most recently, in 2004, a CBE). However, there were plenty who would prefer him to many more feted names.

He was also one of the few people to actually participate in a recording with Joyce Hatto. When the scandal first reared its head his recording of Bax's Symphonic Variations was held up by some as an example as to why her recordings must be genuine (when the existence of many of her collaborators was questioned), surely he would not be involved in such a deception. I was never impressed by Hatto (or whoever was playing on the recordings I listened to), and despite being among those raising questions when Radio 3 started playing them, this fact bothered me too. Of course, it was genuine as it was much earlier than the fakes.

His Elgar, which I have never explored, but long been meaning to (unhelpfully Classics for Pleasure have not boxed them into a convenient slim-line set, maybe now they will). I recall a documentary about Elgar, where he discussed how he was the only one who actually followed the composer's instruction in a particular section of the second symphony. There was something understated about the way he spoke, as there was about his conducting and his manner onstage.

Of course, Handley couldn't go that whole concert at the Anvil without playing one obscure British work: John Moeran's Sinfonietta. And like much such repertoire, he caused one to wonder why it was as obscure as it is. He provided excellent support for Lindberg's superb trombone work in the two concertos and gave a good Beethoven 3rd symphony. Indeed, I think it was one of the first times I heard a really convincing account of the finale of the work. The LMP were one of the mainstays of the Anvil's concert schedule and not always terribly impressively so, their concert with Handley was their best and indeed one of the highlights of the season, behind a splendid Mackerras Brahms 4 with the Philharmonia.

I remember wondering why Handly wasn't Sir Vernon. Others on the BBC Radio 3 message boards have been wondering the same thing. Possibly in part this is a result of his decision to decline an OBE in 1988. Still, if Roger Norrington can have a K it seems perverse in the extreme that Tod didn't.

He will be missed, not least by the British musicians he was such a champion of.

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