Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
A Sea Symphony (1903/09, rev. 1923)
Katherine Broderick (soprano), Roderick Williams (baritone)
Schola Cantorum, Ad Solem
Hallé Choir and Orchestra/Sir Mark Elder
rec. live, 29 March 2014 and in rehearsal, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, UK
HALLÉ CD HLL 7542 [70.16]

On its own label the Hallé under Sir Mark Elder is releasing recordings of a level of excellence that can bear comparison with any orchestra on the international stage. Recordings of works by Wagner, Elgar, Delius, Vaughan Williams and Shostakovich spring to mind for their elevated performance and recording quality. As demonstrated by his series of opera recordings for Opera Rara Sir Mark Elder is a music director and conductor with an international vision yet there is today no champion of English music as influential, maintaining the long tradition fostered by the Hallé.

On Saturday evening the 29th March last year I was in the Bridgewater Hall audience for the Hallé performance of the Vaughan Williams A Sea Symphony. This release on the orchestra’s own label is a recording of that concert together with some rehearsal material. To hear a performance of Vaughan Williams’s A Sea Symphony is a rare treat. With around 340 performers (including 240 singers) organising a performance of A Sea Symphony is an immense undertaking and the large Bridgewater Hall audience clearly relished the opportunity.

Few composers can have received as much tuition as Vaughan Williams who as late as 1908, then approaching his forties, was taking lessons with Maurice Ravel. Completed in 1909, after a seven year gestation period, any self-doubts about his compositional prowess in A Sea Symphony certainly don’t show. Scored on a large scale for soprano, baritone, mixed chorus and orchestra for a composer in the early stages of his symphonic career it’s such a highly assured work. Even though American poet Walt Whitman had died earlier in 1892 his verse had become extremely popular with composers of the day none more so than Vaughan Williams who for A Sea Symphony uses Whitman’s mystical text from the poetry collection Leaves of Grass.

The writing never successfully achieves the sheer magnificence of the opening of the brass fanfare and the massed choir singing the words ‘Behold, the sea itself’. And magnificent it does sound with an energised Sir Mark holding his massed choral and orchestral forces together so effectively from the first note to the last. Buoyed by Sir Mark’s judicious pacing the performance of this demanding work crackles with drama and is astutely brought together as one impressive whole. The choice of both soprano Katherine Broderick and baritone Roderick Williams, a regular visitor to the Bridgwater Hall was an inspired one. Assisted by their impressive projection and clarity of diction on the night the pair experienced few problems in being heard in the Bridgewater’s acoustic so notoriously testing for vocalists. Of the many highlights I especially enjoyed the evocative third movement Scherzo: The Waves with the combined forces presenting the often turbulent activity involved in sailing the perilous seas so successfully. One could almost taste the salt tang of the spray and feel the sting on the face.

Satisfyingly the soloists, choirs and orchestra have been caught splendidly by the sound team with a vivid clarity and well judged balance. In this live recording there is virtually no extraneous noise and no applause left in at the conclusion. An authoritative essay by the late Michael Kennedy has been included and pleasingly full texts are provided.

A key work in British Music, this magnificent live recording of Vaughan Williams’s A Sea Symphony, which grips the listener from first to note to last, is guaranteed to be a Recording of the Year.

Michael Cookson
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