RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
A Sea Symphony (1909) [66:19]
Geraldine McGreevy (soprano); Tommi Hakala (baritone)
MDR Symphony Orchestra and Radio Choir/Howard Arman
rec. live, 4 February 2007, Gewandhaus, Leipzig, Germany
MDR KONZERTE VKJK 0731 [66:19]
Since most of the performers on this disc were new to me, it makes sense to begin with some information about them. MDR stands for Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk, or Central German Broadcasting. The amalgamation in 1991 of two radio orchestras based in Leipzig gave birth to the MDR Symphony Orchestra, whose Chief Conductor is Jun Märkl, soon to be succeeded by Kristjan Järvi. The conductor on this disc is actually the Chorus Master of the associated Radio Choir, a post he has held since 1998. He was born in London, but most of his career seems to have been spent in Germany. Geraldine McGreevy is an English soprano who trained at the Royal Academy of Music. Collectors who have Hugh Wood’s magnificent (though challenging) Scenes from Comus (NMC) on their shelves will already be familiar with her voice. Finally, Finnish baritone Tommi Hakala studied both in Finland and in Germany, and in 2003 was the winner of the BBC’s Cardiff Singer of the World competition.
This is a live recording from the Leipzig Gewandhaus. The audience is very well behaved and for most of the performance the listener probably wouldn’t know they were there. The final bars of the work fade into nothingness, a typical Vaughan Williams feature. Quite a few seconds of silence follow the final chord, so quite why the producers decided to include applause, and over half a minute of it at that, is anybody’s guess. Individual views differ as to whether or not to include applause in a live recording, and going back to the venue the next day to record the final bars in order to circumvent applause does seem a strange idea. But I do think it a pity that the applause was retained in this case. It is not, however, a reason for collectors, established Vaughan Williams admirers and newcomers alike, to pass over this performance, which is absolutely outstanding.
You suspect a safe pair of hands from the opening bars, which are splendidly sonorous and majestic, but which above all show a real feeling for the ebb and flow – please forgive the maritime imagery – of Vaughan Williams’ musical pulse. The suspicion is confirmed when the mood changes for the words “Today a rude brief recitative”, whose music has just the right swaggering, even swashbuckling quality. In short, this first movement is hugely impressive, with magnificent sweep, as if conceived and performed in a single breath. The second movement communicates great calm, though Sir Adrian Boult, incomparable here, achieves even more. The scherzo is brilliantly precise and wildly exciting, but as so often in this work, it is the long opening passage of the finale that demonstrates most clearly the quality of the choral singing. The choir is magnificent throughout, in fact, and it is clear that the work has been scrupulously prepared, presumably by the conductor of this performance. Singling out the near-ecstatic singing of the passage “The true son of God shall come singing his songs”, again from the finale, shouldn’t detract from the remarkable achievement of the rest. Orchestras don’t always take kindly to being conducted by the choral director, but there are no signs of any problems here, the ensemble playing with remarkable skill, commitment and conviction. Geraldine McGreevy is very fine, her stratospheric notes admirably secure, and the voice steely and clear in her very first solo. Tommi Hakala sings with superb spirit and insight, and that is enough for this listener to forgive him his rather pronounced vibrato. Others might feel differently; they may be more disturbed that I, too, by his sometimes rather wayward English vowels. The soloists’ long duet in the fourth movement is very affecting, and their way with “Bathe me O God in thee”, just before the famous passage “O thou transcendent”, is as beautiful as I can remember hearing it.
The Sea Symphony is a difficult work to hold together, and Arman is very successful indeed. His pacing of the work is unerring, and balancing these huge forces has been most skilfully done. Only in the final minutes do I part company with him. Firstly, the silence the coda (“O my brave soul! O farther sail!”) is much longer than the “piccolo pausa” indicated by the composer. More important, it seems too long, especially since the basic tempo for this final section is very slow indeed, arguably too slow, though that really is a subjective judgment. At no other point do I feel the conductor’s vision of the work to be anything other than totally right and convincing.
The recording, presumably intended for broadcast, is of demonstration quality. Details emerge, especially in the orchestral writing, that I have never heard before. If you find the same, be assured, they are all there in the score. The English/German booklet is excellent, featuring, amongst other things, a short and thoughtful essay on the work signed by the conductor.
There are many very fine performances of this work on disc, and Vaughan Williams enthusiasts will have their own favoured version. I hope they will be ready to add this one to their collection, however, as this particular Vaughan Williams enthusiast has been bowled over by its quality. It will certainly be one of the choices when, in the future, I feel the need to hear the Sea Symphony.
Mainly German forces combine for a very fine performance of the Sea Symphony – this disc is an unexpected gem.