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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
A Sea Symphony (Symphony No. 1) (1909)
Joan Rodgers (soprano); Christopher Maltman (baritone)
Bournemouth Symphony Chorus and Orchestra/Paul Daniel.
Rec. Poole Arts Centre, UK, February 8th-10th, 2002. DDD
NAXOS 8.557059 [63’54]

 

Difficult to know to whom to ascribe the greatest credit – the performers or the engineer. The engineer in this case is the same person as the producer, Tim Handley, who has provided a recording at once clear and spacious, able to take the massive choral statements as well as reproduce accurately the tonal beauty of the two vocal soloists. Joan Rodgers and Christopher Maltman are two of the UK’s best-loved young singers. Maltman recently impressed in the role of Tarquinius (Rape of Lucretia) for ENO at the Barbican (http://www.musicweb-international.com/SandH/2003/Oct03/britten711.htm) and he is no less imposing here.

The standard of recording establishes itself at the very beginning, the brass fanfare being notably well-balanced. Interpretatively, whether the choral arrival on the word ‘Sea’ (‘Beholds the sea itself’) is as awe-inspiring as it might be is questionable, but the overall sense of Romantic flow is undeniable. It could be that Daniel was deliberately holding his forces back, as the recurrence of the line (2’08) is endowed with substantially more clout.

The first soloist to enter is Maltman. Not as commanding as some (John Carol Case for Boult with the LPO is more successful – EMI CDM7 64016-2), he still conveys a very English sense of integrity. A pity he is not as inspirational as could have perhaps been the case at the line ‘And out of these a chant for the sailors of all nations’ (5’27).

The listener has to wait full eight minutes (8’24, to be precise) before Joan Rodgers enters, but it is worth the wait. Her ‘Flaunt out, O sea’ combines beauty of voice with fierce dignity, authority with roundness of tone. More, she seems to inspire the chorus into matching her as they echo her sentiments and later, her floated entrance at ‘Token of all brave captains’ emerging from a choral and orchestral mêlée (10’46) provides a moment of pure magic. It is the chorus that, alas, lets the side down at the very end of the movement (‘A pennant universal’), sounding literal and bland (15’08).

The second movement (‘On the Beach at Night, alone) is a setting for baritone and chorus of Whitman’s poem. Daniel does not conjure up the tranquillity the text demands, needing to relax more into the depth of this music. More specifically, the sense of wonder at the Universe and at the great space of a unified Everything (‘A great similitude interlocks all’, states the text) is under-projected (and is that an edit I hear at its choral restatement, 6’32?). Maltman does his considerable best, invoking an initial sense of desolation in his bleached tone but Daniel does not have the ‘greatness’ to do the music full justice.

If the third movement (‘The Waves’) is agile, it could be even more pointed from the chorus (who are elsewhere generally excellent). There is a touch of the routine - or the safe? - about this, especially the tricky staccato accents.

Elements of mystery do permeate the finale (‘The Explorers’) and there is much to impress here (try Rodgers and Maltman in duet at ‘Bathe me, O God, in thee’, 15’44). However it does not, in the last analysis, supply the broad message of hope Vaughan Williams surely intended.

Naxos’s cover is remarkably apt (a painting once attributed to Turner) in its representation of a dark maritime processional. Richard Whitehouse’s notes are generally acceptable except for one over-long and clumsy sentence (paragraph 2).

Colin Clarke

See also review by John Philips

 



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