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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872 – 1958)
A Sea Symphony Symphony No. 1 – based upon texts by Walt Whitman.
Joan Rodgers (soprano), Christopher Maltman, (baritone)
Bournemouth Symphony Chorus and Orchestra/Paul Daniel
Rec. 8–10 February 2002, Poole Arts Centre. DDD
NAXOS 8.557059 [63.54]

Naxos is in the process of recording all of this composer’s symphonies. Up until this release there have been seven releases. They have all been conducted by Kees Bakels, with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Now, for some reason, Paul Daniel steps on to the podium to replace Bakels for the largest of the nine and the only choral symphony apart from the female chorus parts in No. 7.

Vaughan Williams took texts from Whitman’s "Leaves of Grass" as the basis of his symphony (not known as a symphony until later). He was influenced by Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, and the choral works of Stanford and Parry. Wanting to free himself from the yoke of Germanic writing, the composer used British folk music to stunning effect. In many parts of the symphony, the influence of folk melodies is surely evident for all of us to enjoy, and early audiences were similarly affected, given its popularity in its early years.

The current disc contains a very fine performance and it is in current modern characteristics. It seems to me that with solo singers, it is thought that the more vibrato that can be displayed, the better, and both Joan Rodgers and Christopher Maltman have this feature in abundance. For me, this ruins the disc, but others who are not similarly affected by this currently fashionable style will find much to enjoy.

The Naxos engineers balance the forces well and there is no competition between chorus and orchestra. The recording sounds very natural and even the soloists are balanced well against the backdrop.

Paul Daniel has the measure of the symphony although here and there, percussion and the rest of the orchestra are not totally together – maybe there should have been one or two retakes to correct these slight errors. The opening of the first movement has one or two of these errors, but none is serious.

The Bournemouth Symphony Chorus is a very fine ensemble, with clear diction and plenty of spirit. Indeed, the Chorus and the Orchestra are the strongest participants here.

After listening carefully to this disc, I don’t think that either Sir Adrian Boult or better still, Sir Bernard Haitink, have any fear of competition in this symphony. The latter won a Gramophone Award some years ago, and it still sounds as fresh now as it did then.

If you are looking for a brand new recording of this fascinating symphony, this Naxos release will fill the bill admirably, provided the features I have raised do not cause you a problem. Both of the earlier EMI discs have greater impact, but this may not be a serious problem, particularly given the low price of the current release. It will be interesting to see if Paul Daniel will be entrusted with the last symphony in the cycle – I certainly hope so, as this does not have soloists to cause the problem which is clearly evident here.

John Phillips


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