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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
The Wasps overture (1909) [9:59]
A Sea Symphony (1909) [66:20]
Susan Gritton (soprano)
Gerald Finley (baritone)
London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra/Richard Hickox
rec. Barbican Centre, London, 3-4 June 2006. DDD
CHANDOS CHSA 5047 [76:17]


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 like.

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 timings:







Hickox 2006


















Hickox 1989






Daniel’s opening 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 passages.

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.

Daniel’s opening 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.

Daniel’s approach 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 heard.

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, irrevocable disappearance.

Daniel’s approach 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 experience.

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.

Michael Greenhalgh 



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