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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
A Sea Symphony (Symphony No. 1) (1909) [63.54]
Texts by Walt Whitman.
Joan Rodgers, soprano; Christopher Maltman, baritone.
Bournemouth Symphony Chorus and Orchestra/Paul Daniel
Recorded at the Poole Arts Centre, Bournemouth, UK, 10 February 2002.
Notes English and Deutsch. English texts, no translations.
Hybrid SACD Playable on all CD players
NAXOS 6.110016 [63.54]

 


Comparison Recordings

LPO and chorus/Sir Adrian Boult [ADD] EMI CDM 64016

Howard Hanson “A Sea Symphony”, Seattle SO/Gerard Schwartz [ADD] Delos DE 3130

This is one of Vaughan Williams’ most derivative works with echoes of Brahms, Strauss, Holst and Mahler. Other listeners hear Stanford, Parry, Mendelssohn and Elgar. Beginning a symphony with a melodic ascending half-step at first seems a highly original stroke even though harmonically it’s not much different from the first chords of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. Vaughan Williams never assigned opus numbers and at first didn’t number his symphonies. This work, begun in 1903, was completed just after his “Toward the Unknown Region,” another setting of Whitman, and the Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1 of 1906, and before the Tallis Fantasia of 1910, part of an astounding sequence of masterpieces, all leaning just a little on traditional forms and tunes.

The four movements are unequal in length, curiously similar to the lengths of the movements of the Beethoven Choral Symphony, although there is virtually no other resemblance to that work detectable. After the triumphant opening movement, the slow movement is purely that, the scherzo — including chorus — thoroughly a scherzo. But the last movement is in a highly original format consisting largely of a duet which is the sequel to Purcell’s King Arthur. Here is where Bright Annie seduces Poseidon into giving the whole world to Britain (Did Whitman write that?) and in 1910 Britain was still holding onto the world pretty firmly. I’ve never cared much for Walt Whitman, but Vaughan Williams liked Whitman and that’s all that matters. The soloists are excellent, every bit the match for many illustrious forebears.

The sound on this disc, in all formats, is excellent, accurately representing the size and depth of the performing group. In the opening phrases the organ pedal notes are clearly differentiated from the timpani rolls, and the words of the chorus are clear.

An interesting footnote to this work is Howard Hanson’s setting of nearly the same text. While not a great work, as is his Second Symphony, Hanson’s Seventh or Sea Symphony is an interesting, intelligent, commentary by one musician on another’s work. Formerly available on Delos, this recording will likely soon be released on the Naxos label.

Paul Shoemaker

 

 

 

 

 



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