Sober, strong, and staid, Vernon Handley's conducting is a conduit through which the composer's music flows. His Edward Elgar has honest, idealistic sentimentality. His Vaughan Williams has mystical, humanistic integrity. And his Malcolm Arnold has power, depth, and irrepressible vitality. This doesn't mean that Handley doesn't have a strong artistic personality. But Handley conducts with the musical equivalent of a paucity of adjectives and especially adverbs. Handley is the Hemingway of conductors, a conductor who lets the nouns and especially the verbs do the work.
In this recording of Arnold's Symphony No. 3 and No. 4 with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, the results are sublime and ridiculous because the music is itself sublime and ridiculous. Arnold's Third is as great an English symphony as has ever been composed and its power, depth, and ferocity have never been better served in recordings. Anyone who loves great English music will love this work and this recording. And then there's the Fourth, a work that does more then flirt with banality, it embraces it with both arms and gives it a wet kiss. The Allegro's big tune is the ironic theme for an imaginary Ealing comedy. The Vivace ma non troppo is a dumb show of subdued virtuosity. The Andantino is a hootchie-kootchie show with Little Egypt hiding behind orchestral veils. The closing Con fuoco fugue is a vulgar parody of all contrapuntal conventions climaxing in the gaudy panoply of a Technicolor faux coronation. And yet in Handley's strong and sober conducting, even the banal Fourth sounds like great music, banal music, true but nevertheless great music. Handley stoutly resists temptations of sarcasm and irony and his unswerving belief compels listeners' belief. Conifer's 1996 sound is warm and deep.