There have been several, fine recorded cycles of the
Vaughan Williams symphonies, notably by Sir Adrian Boult (twice) and
by Bernard Haitink. However, notwithstanding my admiration for Boult
in particular, I venture to suggest that Vernon Handley’s cycle is,
perhaps, the most consistent of all. These recordings were originally
made for EMI’s Eminence label and I collected them when they were first
issued; their reappearance now on the re-launched Classics for Pleasure
label is a cause for rejoicing.
A Sea Symphony, the first in the canon, is a
vast, sprawling canvas. It could be argued that it contains just too
much material for its own good and that the span is too lengthy. However,
having had the thrilling experience of singing in several performances
I wouldn’t be without a single bar. The symphony is a noble, impassioned
utterance and the confidence with which the (relatively) young composer
handles his large forces is marvellous. It is easy to forget that at
the time this work was by some distance his biggest work to date.
The arresting opening fanfare and choral outburst must
have rocked the audience at the first performance at the Leeds Festival
in 1910. This is even more true when the music is reprised a few minutes
later but with one telling and imaginative addition to the scoring in
the shape of an underpinning bass drum roll which brilliantly suggests
the pent-up power of a great wave building and crashing onto the beach.
This is a moment which always makes the hairs on the back of my neck
prickle and it has precisely that effect in this performance. Indeed,
like so much else in this account, it just feels ‘right’. As one of
the very best advocates of English music in recent years, Handley is
entirely at home in this music and his persuasive, natural authority
is one of the principal reasons why this recording is so successful.
He is ably supported by the RLPO and by its chorus,
who quite evidently were very well prepared for this assignment by Ian
Tracey. The choir launches into the movement with a compelling ardour
and, inspired by Handley, they convey very well the sheer sweep and
majesty of the movement – sample the huge final climax of the movement
(track 5, 1’27") with the voice of Joan Rodgers soaring wonderfully
over the tumult.
In his good, succinct notes Andrew Achenbach quotes
Michael Kennedy’s verdict at the time of the original release that Rodgers
gives "by far the most dramatic account of the soprano part I have
heard." Praise indeed from the expert on Vaughan Williams’
music and I would not disagree. I also rate highly Sheila Armstrong
in Boult’s later EMI recording (Boult 2) and Felicity Lott (for Haitink,
also EMI) though, unlike Andrew Achenbach I do not care for Isobel Baillie
on Boult’s first recording (for Decca) who I find too mannered in this
role. However, Rodgers suffers nothing by comparison with any of her
rivals and sings magnificently throughout. Her very first entry (track
3, 0’08") is ringing and imperious and a little later (track 3,
2’42") her exposed top A at "Token of all brave captains"
is truly thrilling. She is no less successful in more reflective passages
and her contribution throughout this movement and in the finale (the
only movements in which she is involved) is quite memorable.
I can’t be quite so enthusiastic about her partner,
baritone William Shimmell. His quiet singing is very pleasing (for example
in the second movement, ‘On the Beach at Night, Alone’) though I don’t
find him as characterful as, say, John Shirley-Quirk (for Previn, RCA),
still less the incomparable John Cameron (Boult 1). However, my chief
reservation concerns a worrying spread in the voice when he puts it
under pressure in louder passages. I hear clear evidence of strain,
leading to wobbles in pitch on loud high notes such as his E flat on
the key word "Indomitable" (track 2, 4’49"). I don’t
wish to nit-pick but these points are important, particularly on repeated
listening. Happily, there are more positives than negatives, overall.
As I said, he sings well in the second movement, where the baritone
carries the main burden of the music, and much of his singing in the
long finale is very good.
The choir is generally very good and gives a fine account
of the fleet scherzo, ‘The Waves’ where their rhythms are precise and
diction is very good. Even in this, the fastest music in the work, they
do not sacrifice tone for agility. If I have a concern it is that they
don’t sing quietly enough in the softer passages. This is especially
apparent in the rapt opening of the finale (where the LPO chorus, singing
for Haitink, really set the benchmark). However, the fervour of their
singing at the great outburst beginning at "Finally" (track
10, 5.45") is very involving. Much of the really important material
in the finale is given to the soloists and they rise to the challenge.
Joan Rodgers is again superb here, duetting ecstatically with William
Shimmell, who also sings eloquently both when in partnership with her
and in his own demanding solo.
Presiding over all this, as helmsman and navigator,
is Vernon Handley and the proceedings could not be in better hands.
The score is littered with tempo changes and all are negotiated seamlessly.
Handley clearly has an intuitive and thorough understanding of the score
and a deep love of the work. As I said earlier, everything sounds ‘right’.
This symphony contains many pitfalls for a conductor who is less than
fully confident in the music but these hold no terrors for Handley who
is masterful and authoritative throughout. He is splendid in the many
dramatic moments, which are played for all they are worth. Above all,
however, the beautiful closing pages are moving, eloquent and satisfying
as he navigates towards the far horizon.
A Sea Symphony is a wonderful, moving work,
capable of stirring the listener profoundly when given a performance
of the conviction evident here. This is one of many recordings of English
music, in particular, which underlines what a scandal it is that Vernon
Handley has never been in charge of a major British orchestra.
The recorded sound is very good, with a wide dynamic
range. There is plenty of detail (with the percussion especially well
caught) and the bass is rich, which means that the important organ part
in the finale registers well. There’s nothing in the documentation to
suggest that the recording has been remastered and I couldn’t detect
any significant difference between this CD and my copy of the original
Though William Shimmell would not be my first choice
baritone soloist in this work, Joan Rodgers is quite another mattter.
Shimmell is good but she is excellent, a strong candidate for "best
soprano" in this work on disc. Choir and orchestra respectively
sing and play very well and with total commitment to the cause. Handley
is the hero of the enterprise, leading an interpretation which is very
satisfying. This issue may be in the bargain price bracket but its musical
value is in the premium range. Admirers of Vaughan Williams and of one
of Britain’s best conductors should snap up this excellent release without
other Handley Classics for Pleasure releases