> Vaughan Williams Symphony 1 Handley [JQ]: Classical CD Reviews- July2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
A Sea Symphony

Joan Rodgers (sop.), William Shimmell (bar.)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
Conducted by Vernon Handley
Recorded in the Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool 27-29 July, 1988
CLASSICS FOR PLEASURE 7243 5 75308 2 8 [69.45]



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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 These recordings were originally made for EMI’s Eminence label and I collected them when they were first issued; their reappearance now on the re-launched Classics for Pleasure label is a cause for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 release.

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 delay.
Strongly recommended.

John Quinn

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