Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
A Sea Symphony (1903-1909)
Katherine Broderick (soprano), Roderick Williams (baritone)
Hallé Choir, Hallé Youth Choir, Schola Cantorum, Ad Solem/James Burton
Hallé Orchestra/Sir Mark Elder
rec. live, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 29 March 2014 and in rehearsal
HALLÉ CD HLL 7542 [70.16]
MusicWeb International has already published two appraisals of this excellent album. The review by John Quinn - who also made this disc Recording of the Month (with which I heartily agree) - carries with it the insight of someone who has actually sung A Sea Symphony in performance. His review includes reference to Sir Adrian Boult’s fine 1968 recording with The London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir and John Carol Case and Sheila Armstrong. Boult’s 1968 recording has long been my favourite and, for me, it is the touchstone for all successive recordings. In his notes for this album, the late Michael Kennedy remarks upon the close working partnership between Vaughan Williams and Sir Adrian – the composer suggesting improving score alterations to the conductor. Instead of my reinventing the wheel I want to add my comments so do please do read those two other reviews.
Roderick Williams is indeed excellent although John Carol Case on the Boult disc has great strengths and is well worth hearing. Sheila Armstrong is also excellent. Together Carol Case and Armstrong are very convincing and affecting in the final pages of ‘The Explorers’ last movement. The Manchester Choir sings superbly and is better focused and technically more adept than their London Philharmonic equivalent. Steve Portnoi’s production and balancing engineering for the Hallé is excellent too providing an impressive and dramatic dynamic range.
While as a contender this new disc is very fine indeed it does not displace my regard for Boult's 1968 version. It all boils down to these performances being reflections of their times and I hope I am not being too fanciful here. To put this remark into slightly sharper focus, I was dismayed to read a review of this disc by someone who totally, and I felt maliciously, derided Walt Whitman’s verses. Maybe this outlook is a reflection of these increasingly secular times where faith is minimal. Back in 1968 things were, as I recall, a little different. Boult in ‘The Explorers’ does indeed take the "opening pages (broadly)" with the metronome marking ignored and Boult preferring a tempo well below the marked crotchet = 44. However he gets away with it … and to magical effect. At the words “O vast Rondure, swimming in space, Cover’d all over with visible power and beauty” there is such an emotional charge, a sense of wonder which never fails to bring a lump to my throat. It is this sincerity, evident throughout much of this movement, that makes Boult’s version so precious to me.
Incidentally, it is interesting to note the wide divergence of reviewers’ opinions when it comes to answering the vexed question of which is the best recording of this work. Personally I prefer, in addition to the Boult, André Previn’s 1970 RCA-BMG version with Heather Harper, John Shirley-Quirk and the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. I would also want people to hear Bernard Haitink’s 1989 EMI Classics disc with Felicity Lott, Jonathan Summers and the London Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra.
This A Sea Symphony ranks highly with the best but it does not displace Boult’s 1968 recording from the top of my list.
Previous reviews: Michael Cookson and John Quinn (Recording of the Month)
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