This is the latest
instalment of Richard Hickox’s cycle of Vaughan Williams symphonies,
the first on SACD. It began with his recording in 1997 of Symphony
5, followed by the original version of A London Symphony
in 2000, Symphony 4 in 2001, the Pastoral Symphony
in 2002 and Symphonies 6 and 8 in 2003.
First on this SACD
comes a generous bonus, The overture (tr. 1) written for the
incidental music to Aristophanes’ comedy The Wasps. The
creatures buzz around in the introduction with menacing efficiency.
The first theme, the first of the old tunes of Phrymicus, is
jauntily introduced by clarinet and bassoon at 0:56 and progresses
breezily, as befits its ‘scherzando’, ‘playful’, marking.
The second old tune (1:17) is treated with breadth by the horns
with the violins. But the tune everyone remembers is the glowing
third theme (3:19), a typical big RVW tune which represents
the reconciliation of Bdelycleon with his father Philoclean.
This Hickox gives the warmth of a perfect summer’s morning,
sensitively slightly leaning on the melody at the apex (3:56)
and giving it a lift. It’s followed by a balmy succession of
wind solos. The trenchant return of the second theme smoothes
out in the strings at 7:54 to a fresh air effect before a creamy
celebration of the return of the big tune in combination with
the first theme which is now a little more polite.
I compared the 2005
recording by the Hallé Orchestra/Mark Elder (Hallé CD HLD 7510).
He’s slightly faster overall at 9:36 against Hickox’s 9:59 and
his variations in tempo are a little more marked in a performance
which has more greasepaint about it. His wasps in the introduction
are scarier, with more of a sense of swarming attacks in droves.
The central idyll isn’t as smooth but more tender and personal,
the big tune serenely relaxed in utter contentment. Its return
highlights the trumpet solo to more radiant effect, which I
prefer to Hickox’s allowing prominence to the woodwind partial
doubling, though this may partly be courtesy of the Chandos
surround sound which brings out the percussion, bass drum in
particular, more vividly throughout. Hickox and Chandos realize
the strings’ sul ponticello, that nasal, brittle effect
achieved by bowing near the bridge, more distinctively, so Hickox’s
wasps are scarier when they return sul ponticello at
1:52 and you notice, after the big tune as the wind solos of
individual contentment start with the clarinets a reduced body
of sul ponticello strings tremolo in the background
at 4:24. The wasps are still there, but contained. Hickox has
a gentler, musing feeling to that big tune and his shaping of
it emphasises that reflective quality. This ties in well with
the following wind solos which are gorgeously done while the
horns are superb throughout. All in all, this first recording
in surround sound turns out to be a worthy one.
A Sea Symphony,
like The Wasps, was also completed in 1909 and also enjoys
phases of jauntiness, such as the first movement (tr. 2) Allegro,
‘Today a rude, brief, recitative’ (3:11) and, if not a big tune,
a big hearted unifying motif, first heard at ‘and on its limitless
heaving breast, the ships’ (0:35) which, like the opening chorus
harmonic progression (0:09) can be found in all 4 movements.
Hickox’s opening is fresh and arresting, with weight as well
as flow. The chorus is enthusiastic and welcoming. And how explicitly
chorus and orchestra at ‘of waves spreading’ (4:34) show Vaughan
Williams constructing the entries in tiers to illustrate the
text. Baritone soloist Gerald Finley’s golden tone is an excellent
match with always a glint of appreciation in his voice.
Susan Gritton is
an imposing soprano soloist with a thrilling top A at ‘Token
of all brave captains’ (10:35) but the following chorus to the
same words (10:55) is beautifully tender with a lovely sympathetic
murmuring strings and clarinet backcloth. It becomes more emotive
to a full climax at 12:39 and yet still has something of restraint
about it, as befits a tribute. It continues with great spaciousness
when a little slower, as marked, as ‘all that went down doing
their duty’ attains a tellingly hushed quality (12:58). None
of the other 3 recordings which I mention below has such sensitivity.
On the other hand ‘Emblem of man’ (14:13) features some equally
fine, really quite heroically operatic choral singing before
the soprano soloist’s superb top B (17:11) as she becomes her
text, ‘One flag above all the rest’. Now here are some very
soft but perceptible sul ponticello strings in this symphony
to give an eerie backcloth to the sense of mystery at this second
invocation of ‘Behold the sea’ (17:24). The soft coda is beautifully
done with absolute clarity of soloists and chorus divided into
9 parts. The soloists are always heard from within the ensemble
as it were, with no especially forward positioning, which I
I compared the two
recordings already available in surround sound. The most recent
is the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus and Orchestra/Paul Daniel
(Naxos 6.110016) recorded in 2002. The other surround sound
recording is the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Robert
Spano (Telarc SACD 60588). I also compared Hickox’s 1989 recording
with the London Symphony Chorus and Philharmonia Orchestra,
the only RVW symphony he recorded before his Chandos cycle (Virgin
Classics VC 7908432, no longer available). Here are the comparative
has fire and breadth but the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus don’t
have the impact of the London Symphony Chorus. Daniel brings
out the drama in the orchestration, however, with rhythms particularly
incisive. Baritone soloist Christopher Maltman, close miked,
is characterful but, with some vibrato, less smooth than Gerald
Finley and so seems more deliberate. Also close miked, soprano
soloist Joan Rodgers has abundant presence but again, with more
vibrato, lacks Susan Gritton’s smooth clarity. The chorus ‘Token
of all brave captains’ is here a warm tribute but misses Hickox’s
delicacy of tone, partly owing to the acoustic of Poole Arts
Centre being more reverberant than the Barbican. At ‘Emblem
of man’ the Bournemouth chorus is disadvantaged in relation
to the orchestra spitting fire. On the other hand the later
sul ponticello strings are very distinct.
Spano, despite his
faster timing, is more notable for power and weight than freshness.
His orchestra is vividly captured, the percussion effects quite
spectacular and orchestral detail throughout is excellent except
for those sul ponticello strings which are overmuch on
the edge of audibility. The chorus is hearty where appropriate,
but its ‘Token of all brave captains’ is initially too matter-of-fact,
probably because excessively driven forward. Baritone soloist
Brett Polegato, not as close miked as Christopher Maltman, is
spirited but lacks the unforced character and smoothness of
phrasing that Gerald Finley shows. Soprano soloist Christine
Goerke, who like Joan Rodgers uses more vibrato, isn’t as effective
as Susan Gritton.
In comparison with
its surround sound successors the 1989 Hickox recording is bright
but rather shallow. The performance, however, is just as fresh
as 2006’s and rather more fiery and, in this respect, exciting.
The chorus ‘Token of all brave captains’ is tender but the diction
isn’t as clear as in 2006, the sound a little mushy. However,
it climaxes well where both Daniel and Spano get a little ragged
and, just as in 2006, there’s a lovely calming thereafter. Hickox’s
experience as Director of the London Symphony Chorus, he’d been
that for 11 years in 1989, serves him well. The soloists aren’t
as good as in 2006. Baritone soloist Stephen Roberts approaches
the heroic quality of Gerald Finley but his tone is too light
to have sufficient impact. Like Finley, he isn’t close miked.
Soprano soloist Margaret Marshall is rather screechy in climactic
At this point I
felt the recording under review, the 2006 Hickox, was in danger
of getting lost. So I went back to it and was thrilled by the
way soloists, chorus and orchestra all blended as a team and
a recording balance more successfully than the other 3 recordings.
Hickox’s more expansive tempo overall doesn’t make the performance
seem slower because he’s scrupulous about all the changes, including
increases in tempo, called for. It does, however, give it a
more heroic quality, making it a celebration of grandeur and
relish rather than simply dramatic bluster. It also brought
home to me, despite the large orchestral and choral forces,
how crucial the soloists are. To put it plainly, Finley is the
classiest baritone and Gritton the purest toned soprano. As
a result I decided the only other version of the 4 I began with
for which a continuing comparison is worthwhile is Daniel’s.
The second movement
(tr. 3) is a nocturne and Hickox, despite his expansive tempo,
still invests it with warmth and movement. Vaughan Williams
marks it ‘solenne e tranquillo’. Hickox is tranquil but rather
more respectful than solemn, and I think that’s right. The fascination
of the movement comes from the interplay between baritone soloist,
chorus and orchestra. The soloist has virtually no melody but
sparse, plain statements - Gerald Finley showing fine white
tone - are more freely expanded by chorus and orchestra. So,
for example at 2:14 an oboe marked ‘agitated’ depicts the stated
‘bright star shining’. The soloist, like the star, is one element
in a vast expanse.
The soloist has
a moment of shining appreciation in the central section at ‘A
vast similitude interlocks all’ (3:58) but the chorus, here
lightly ecstatic, has the climax at ‘This vast similitude spans
them’ (6:32) followed by resplendent orchestral fanfares. Then
we return to the stillness of the opening music, just the soloist’s
opening phrase, the rest reprised by orchestra alone. But the
words already heard enable us to appreciate the density of the
atmosphere, not least the wonderfully distant muted pair of
horns (9:56) answered by first clarinet and the gentlest swell
of the lower strings.
has less warmth than Hickox because his phrasing is less poised.
Hickox also places the trombones and bass trombone punctuation
of the opening strings’ phrases more raptly. The closer miking
of Christopher Maltman means he’s over prominent in relation
to the chorus though in musical elaboration he’s less important.
He articulates with admirable clarity but his fuller tone, especially
at the beginning, misses the feel that Finley and the LSO Chorus
get of a party of folk towards the middle distance, only part
of a vast expanse. At the same time, the better Chandos balancing
of soloist and chorus means the expressiveness of the individual
chorus parts is also more apparent.
The third movement
(tr. 4) is a scherzo featuring just chorus and orchestra. For
Hickox the London Symphony Chorus is fresh, alert and lean.
At ‘Waves, undulating waves’ (1:29) the tiering of the chorus
parts is vividly realized to bring the effect of waves breaking
as they rapidly roll towards you. At 2:32 comes a big RVW tune
for the trio, ‘Where the great vessel sailing’, marked ‘largamente’,
‘broadly’. But it’s not just showy: Hickox gives the orchestral
brass a jamboree bounce and the chorus gets louder, as marked,
for their headier ‘flashing and frolicsome’ (3:19). Later an
orchestral interlude dissolves into calm. Nothing on the horizon.
Then the chorus pops up again with ‘After the sea ship’ (5:33).
And their palpable, half whispered eagerness made me understand
they are the waves wanting to begin the chase.
is bright and immediate, dramatic and squally in effect. Those
‘undulating waves’ explode over you. The big tune is beefy.
The orchestral interlude writhes but its dissolving isn’t as
delicately poetic as Hickox’s. Daniel is direct and intense,
but Hickox catches more of the playfulness of a scherzo and
the impressionistic flair of its orchestration with more light
and shade, variation of tone, colour and texture. The London
Symphony Chorus, though not so hefty or full in tone as the
Bournemouth, sounds more spirited and shows more dynamic contrast.
By attention to
tempo and mood changes Hickox maintains the cohesion of the
lengthy finale (tr. 5) in which particularly, as Michael Kennedy’s
booklet note eloquently puts it “the sea becomes a metaphor
for a voyage into eternity.” Though the structure is more complex,
as performed here 5 phases clearly emerge. The opening phase
is a hymn for the chorus which Hickox presents as a warm homage
with a sense of space, immensity and appreciation of all this.
The second phase
is a faster one of action, ‘Down from the gardens of Asia descending’
(4:38), the feel of ‘restless explorations’ is caught as the
chorus becomes more testy. Then the haunting appearance at 6:39
of ppp semi-chorus singing ‘Wherefore unsatisfied soul?’:
isolated, distant, like an echo of the Sirens. Suddenly despair
turns to hope with the loud ‘Perhaps even now the time has arrived’
and the movement turns dramatic, with a rapturous welcoming
of the Son of God ‘singing his songs’ (9:51) and one of the
few times, even in surround sound, the organ can clearly be
The third phase
begins with a breezy orchestral interlude (10:55), a kind of
backdrop for the entrance of the soloists (11:31), impetuous
at first but then beautifully becalming to an intimate haven
and, again with Hickox, space to experience it, ‘thoughts, silent
thoughts, of time and space and Death’. I like the sensitive
observation, especially by Susan Gritton of the marked sudden
pp at ‘Death’ (15:01). The fourth phase is another hymn,
‘O thou transcendent’ (16:56), this time contrasting the soloists
and massed chorus effects.
The final phase,
‘Away, O soul’ (20:31) begins as one of escape, with kicking
excitement and raring to go. The choral acclamation ‘Sail forth’
(21:36) evokes and honours a huge ship going on its way. But
the specialty of the soul’s journey is also considered with
anxiety, zeal and acceptance in turn before the closing slow,
to the finale is more emotive, less analytical than Hickox’s.
His opening is fuller in tone and heavier in texture but intent,
its climax noble. His tempo change to the second phase is less
striking and the semi-chorus, ‘Wherefore unsatisfied soul?’,
not as quiet or unearthly as Hickox’s, nor is the change at
‘Perhaps even now the time has arrived’ so marked but the following
climax has joyously heartfelt ‘singing his songs’. His orchestral
interlude has less delicacy than Hickox’s but Rogers and Maltman
are more operatic and thereby jubilant, in a manner closer to
a love duet than the more chastely objective Gritton and Finley.
Daniel is impressive in the glowing grandeur he brings to the
fourth phase. His final phase is more precipitant than Hickox’s,
bringing a sense of courageous adventure. In the finale Daniel’s
more subjective, less contrasted view, unashamedly homing in
on the emotions, results in a more direct and certainly moving
But then I returned
to the Hickox recording under review and was very satisfied
in a different way. Hickox aims, more ambitiously, like Vaughan
Williams did, for a more visionary experience. Hickox’s opening
has more humility, benignant warmth and shiningly glistening
high violins. His dynamic contrasts are more effective, such
as the marked softening at ‘and the teeming spiritual darkness’
at 1:34. The first phase orchestral climax has an austere grandeur.
Greater tempo contrast
for the second phase gives more edge to its procession and ‘singing
his songs’ is undeniably fervent. The orchestral interlude has
a telling, sheer impressionist sweep and delicacy. A moment
to recall RVW was a pupil of Ravel. The third phase soloists’
duet is fastidious, oratorio style - though that can’t fairly
be said of Gritton’s wholehearted top B at ‘chanting
our chant’ (13:04) - but also very beautifully and sensitively
sung. The contrasts in the fourth phase are big hearted. The
final phase is bright and vivacious, with emphasis on choral
clarity yet ‘Sail forth’ has resilient fervour. Admittedly the
soloists’ duet at ‘Reckless O soul, exploring’ (22:06) is not
very Allegro agitato but instead rather ponders the notion
of recklessness. The golden tone all achieve at the close is
what you remember.
I’m not personally
a believer in the notion of definitive recordings. When it comes
to A Sea Symphony I appreciate the insights within many
fine performances, notably the two Boult (Decca and EMI), Previn
(RCA) and Haitink (EMI) and, yes, in the finale, Daniel. But
I do think that overall the recording, playing and singing of
this Hickox version set a new standard.