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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
A Sea Symphony (1903-09) [67:40]
Darest thou now, O soul (1925) [3:12]
Elizabeth Llewellyn (soprano); Marcus Farnsworth (baritone)
BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Martin Brabbins
rec. 2017 Blackheath Concert Halls, London UK
HYPERION CDA68245 [70:53]

When I saw that a new recording of Vaughan Williams’s A Sea Symphony had just appeared, I was very keen to get my hands on it for two reasons. Firstly, the work always holds a fair degree of nostalgia, since it was one of my two A-level Music set works, and takes me back many years to a particularly happy time in my past. Secondly, even though I’ve heard and reviewed a number of live concert performances since, I find the opening – with its spine-tingling modulation from the remote key of B flat minor to that of D major, the official key of the first movement – so exciting, yet essentially so simple, from the harmonic standpoint.

The English language is wonderfully rich and expressive, but on the odd occasion has its frustrations. The perfectly-formed ‘overwhelmed’ goes back many hundreds of years, while ‘underwhelm’, though it might exist in some quarters, has no place in formal writing, especially given its somewhat sarcastic connotation. However, ‘underwhelming’ was the first word that came to mind as soon as the brass fanfare broke the silence of the seven-second run-in on the CD. Repeating the same opening bars, and cranking up the volume a tad, I was still left with a similar sensation, even if, to some degree, there might be a subjective element involved here, too. All those years ago on vinyl, and more recently in the concert-hall, it always seemed to make a greater impression than here. Vaughan Williams was a highly-skilled orchestrator, and while this was his first of nine symphonies, he didn’t conduct its première until he was almost forty. He scored his opening brass fanfare for just three trumpets and four horns, marking their entry ff (very loud), marcato (to be played louder or more forcefully), and soli (where all players of each respective instrument are seen as combined soloists). When the choir enters just a couple of beats later, he now dispenses with marcato, and divides the sopranos and tenors into two parts, leaving altos and basses undivided – the initial tempo marking is shown as Moderato maestoso (at a moderate speed, and majestically). But the BBC Symphony Chorus’s entrance is simply stunning and immediately makes up for any perceived lack of initial oomph from the brass, after which the composer’s gloriously-expansive melody unfolds, borne along by the rest of the equally-superb BBC Symphony Orchestra players.

Having got past the opening, my next landmark – remembered from my schooldays – would be the introduction of the baritone soloist, where the tempo increases to Allegro, the key changes to A minor, and the harmony veers towards modality. While still marked only p (soft), the baritone on my original vinyl (John Cameron) had provided a real dramatic contrast with his rendition of ‘Today a rude brief recitative…’ But on this new Hyperion recording, that same incisiveness and attack, albeit at a subdued dynamic, is just not forthcoming. Marcus Farnsworth may well suit some of the more intimate, even enigmatic moments especially in the finale, but here, his opening gambit, too, I found him somewhat remote from the spirit of the text, and, having made a quick online comparison with some of the other recordings already out there, I felt that the majority of these all seemed to put more spirit into this, reinforced by a generally more robust vocal timbre than Farnsworth’s albeit more lyrical delivery. However, the full choral and orchestral reprise was at least suitably thrilling.

My next landmark was the soprano’s first entry at ‘Flaunt out O sea your separate flags of nations!’ This follows on just after the male soloist should have declaimed the word ‘indomitable, marked to be sung loudly and with passion’, though neither descriptor was much in evidence here. The two soloists clearly weren’t chosen for their similarity, more their differences, with the far more powerful voice of soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn almost verging on operatic at times. Of course, this isn’t really what best suits the work, as it is essentially a large-scale cantata, rather than anything even remotely approaching the unashamedly operatic writing of, say, Verdi’s Requiem. Of the two soloists, though, Llewellyn does have the reserve when all the stops are pulled out, something which Farnsworth seemed to lack. Both soloists can also sound occasionally challenged by the tessitura of their respective parts, which, when one of Ms Llewellyn’s top notes is just a mere B, and she is designated a soprano, rather than mezzo, shouldn’t perhaps happen.

But, all in all, this is still a good performance overall, with some especially fine contributions from the choir and orchestra. Neither soloist would have been first choice on my list, but equally there are some moments during the work which did cause me to reconsider this for a moment, even if my opinion ultimately remained unchanged.

Perhaps the unsung hero is conductor Martyn Brabbins, for taking the helm with such aplomb from almost the first bar, and navigating his not-inconsiderable resources with such inspired and confident musicality, and, what is particularly important in a work that lasts almost 70 minutes, with a real sense of direction and purpose.

Although my brief here is not intended as any kind of comparative appraisal of currently available versions, the market does already boast versions by Elder, Slatkin, Davis, Haitink, and Boult (twice), to say nothing of a most presentable 2003 budget-version by Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by Paul Daniel, with soprano Joan Rodgers, and Christopher Maltman (baritone), on Naxos 8.557059 (review). But clearly there are virtually as many different opinions here as there are recordings.

Hyperion’s new CD is superbly recorded, and the booklet contains a great deal of interesting, and erudite information, along with the work’s full text. It also comes with the bonus of a short single work by the composer, Darest thou now, O soul – like the Sea Symphony, another setting of words by American poet Walt Whitman. Originally a short song for unison voices and piano, it is heard on this CD in a version with string-orchestra accompaniment. Unison choral settings were, in fact, popular in England during the 1920s and 1930s, of which Vaughan Williams would have been well aware, the more so since he had been heavily involved as Musical Editor of the English Hymnal of 1906.

But even with this extra little three-minute gem, this new release from Hyperion still wouldn’t be my first choice for a recording of the Sea Symphony In fact, I’d still be perfectly happy with the first one I ever heard, all those years ago on vinyl, with Sir Adrian Boult conducting the London Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra, with soloists Isobel Baillie and John Cameron, and which was subsequently reissued on the Eloquence label (review).

Philip R Buttall [PRB]

Previous review: John Quinn


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