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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
English texts included HALLÉ CDHLL7542 [70.16]
The notes accompanying this latest instalment of the Hallé’s Vaughan Williams cycle are by the late Michael Kennedy and bear testimony to a lifetime’s immersion in the music of VW. Rightly he draws attention to the arresting opening proclamation: “Behold, the sea itself”. I’ve had the good fortune to sing in several performances of this great work and there’s no doubt that the opening is one of the most attention-grabbing in English music. Yet I think VW caps that gesture a few moments later (at 2:25 in this performance) when he reprises the opening material but with one crucial change. This time the choir’s exultant cry is anticipated by and then underpinned by a low drum roll. It’s a masterstroke, which gives the impression of a huge wave building and then crashing onto the shore. In these first two or three minutes the audience for the 1910 premiere in Leeds would have sat up and recognised a new and distinctive voice. We Yorkshire folk aren’t easily impressed but I bet the music-lovers of Leeds were on that occasion.
This opening makes a great impression in Sir Mark Elder’s new performance. I do have one small quibble: just after cue A in the vocal score (at 1:23) there’s a poco animando but so far as I can tell Elder doesn’t move the music on at all with the result that things are too steady. Sir Adrian Boult, in his 1968 EMI recording (review) just increases the pace marginally and it makes a difference. Happily, that’s the only occasion throughout the performance when I had any reservations at all about Elder’s pacing of the score; as usual in VW he seems to have a pretty unerring feel for the pulse.
The first soloist we encounter is the baritone. Anyone who saw Roderick Williams in this symphony at the First Night of the 2013 Proms will be delighted that he has now recorded the work. He makes a great impression immediately, singing with firm, admirably focused tone and enunciating the words, as he invariably does, with crystal clarity. I much prefer him to the rather tight-sounding John Carol Case who sings for Boult. The whole of this allegro episode is put across by Elder and his forces with terrific dash; you can almost taste the salt in the air.
The soprano has an imperiously dramatic first entry at “Flaunt out, O sea”. I like most of what Katherine Broderick contributes to this performance but there are a few occasions where, for my taste, she seems to try too hard, pushing her voice out very strongly and rather overdoing the vibrato. This first entry offers a case in point. It just seems overcooked to me. By comparison Sheila Armstrong (Boult) is as dramatic as she has to be yet her tone has a laser-like focus and the vibrato is more contained: I know which I prefer. I acknowledge that Miss Broderick was projecting into the large space of the Bridgewater Hall while Sheila Armstrong was singing under studio conditions in the Kingsway Hall. As I say, though, there’s a great deal to relish in Broderick’s performance; just a few moments later, at “But do you reserve especially for yourself” her warm, generous tone is ideal.
The extended and reflective passage starting at “Token of all brave captains” is expertly shaped by Elder; his choir and orchestra respond eloquently to this wonderful music. At “A pennant universal” (16:38) Williams sings with great dignity and eventually a glorious final climax is achieved at “One flag above all the rest” (17:58). This is a memorable reading of the first movement.
After all the thrills and grandeur of the opening movement VW effects a masterly contrast with the nocturne-like ‘On the Beach at Night alone’. The orchestral introduction – and the companion passage at the very end of the movement – is wonderfully atmospheric; the Hallé’s playing is subtle and sensitive. Roderick Williams offers calm and elevated singing. John Carol Case does well for Boult but I prefer the sheer sound of Williams’ voice, which caresses the ear, and he also makes more of the words. The choral contribution is, for the most part, pared back to a semi-chorus and the reduced body of singers do very well indeed.
The scherzo, ‘The Waves’, is a virtuoso test of a choir’s precision and it’s a test that is passed with flying colours here. Boult’s London Philharmonic Choir sings strongly and the conductor’s interpretation has plenty of vitality – there are many “flecks of foam” here. Elder’s choir doesn’t seem to make such an impact at first, but don’t be misled. They are, I believe, much more attentive to the dynamic markings, especially the soft ones and they certainly sing incisively. I know from personal experience how demanding this movement is to sing, let alone when the markings are so scrupulously observed, so hats off to the Manchester singers. The big forthright tune which first appears at “Where the great vessel sailing” (2:45) makes a fine showing. I was somewhat disconcerted by one decision of Elder’s (at 5:06). At cue T in the vocal score, just before the scherzo resumes, there are 17 bars where the chorus parts may be omitted. I don’t think I’ve ever heard this done before, whether on disc or live, but Elder omits the vocal parts. I’m rather surprised at this because, frankly, the orchestral music at this point isn’t the most interesting in the score and the choral interjections give a bit of extra shape and focus to the music. There’s another instance where Elder omits optional vocal parts in a very brief passage near the end of the finale. However, in that instance the chorus parts are much less integral to what’s going on and I think this cut in the choral parts is perhaps a bit more generally made; it’s certainly been made in performances in which I’ve sung.
The finale is truly visionary in quality. Here VW’s reach and ambition exceed anything heard so far in the symphony. In this movement he builds on his achievement in Toward the Unknown Region (1906) but in scale and scope he leaves that earlier Whitman setting far behind. Returning to the Boult performance, which I hadn’t heard in a while, I was amazed at how broadly he takes the opening pages; the metronome mark is crotchet = 44 but Boult is well below that. Yet the concentration of his reading is such that I believe he “gets away” with it. Elder is almost exactly on the metronome marking and he lets the music unfold spaciously. He builds the music unerringly towards the first climax at “some hidden prophetic intention”, his choir and orchestra wonderfully eloquent. And then, once the choir has achieved that climax how the Hallé relish the long phrases that follow immediately afterwards.
A little later on (7:09) VW uses a female semi-chorus. The singing here should be delicate and ethereal and that’s just what we hear. Elder’s control over the movement as it unfolds is masterly; he conducts in great long spans. His chorus and orchestra respond with palpable commitment and each of VW’s mighty, grand climaxes is prepared superbly and thrust home in a most satisfying fashion. The soloists’ long ecstatic duet, beginning at “Oh, we can wait no longer” (12:39) finds VW at his most urgent and rapturous. Again I prefer Roderick Williams to John Carol Case yet I have to say that Carol Case and Sheila Armstrong seem to me to be better matched in the early stretches of this duet, than Elder’s team. As ever, Williams sounds completely relaxed and effortless no matter how intensely he is singing but once or twice in these pages Katherine Broderick seems a bit too anxious to be ardent, especially in her upper register. Yet when we get to “O Soul, thou pleasest me” (15:22) she matches Williams’ hushed intensity most successfully. This passage is very fine indeed with some exquisite orchestral solo work, not least from leader Lyn Fletcher. The gentle rapture that Broderick and Williams achieve at “Bathe me, O God, in thee” is deeply satisfying to hear. Williams shines again in the baritone solo beginning at “Swiftly I shrivel at the thought of God” (19:12); here is magnificently eloquent singing, the tone a constant delight. The choir earn my admiration for their incisiveness at “Away, O Soul”, a notoriously tricky little passage.
After the last huge climax the rapt ending, beginning at “O my brave soul! O farther sail” (26:00) is superbly achieved. You have the sense that everyone is giving everything to sing and play this visionary music as delicately as they can – there are some wonderful soft top Gs from Miss Broderick, for example. The performance conveys what VW surely intended, namely a sense of reach, of great vistas opening up before our eyes. In the end the music vanishes mysteriously into the ether. Mercifully, no applause intrudes though I bet that on the night there was a tremendous ovation.
I should say something about the presentation of this recording. I’ve alluded to the notes by Michael Kennedy; they are a welcome reminder of his excellence as an expert annotator. One or two Hallé recordings have occasioned disappointment among my colleagues but this one strikes me as being very successful. There’s a wide dynamic range – essential in this work – and plenty of detail can be heard in what is often a very full and busy score. The soloists were placed, I’m sure, at the front of the stage and that’s how it sounds; they’re recorded with just the right degree of presence. Most satisfying of all is that the sound of the choir registers with tremendous impact and the balance between choir and orchestra is very good. I think that engineer Steve Portnoi and his assistants have done a very good job indeed.
If like me you’re following and enjoying this Elder series you won’t need any encouragement from me to acquire this latest release. In any case, Michael Cookson’s earlier review or his Seen and Heard review of the concert on which this recording is based will have convinced you. I’ve heard many recordings of Sea Symphony over the years and I admire several but this new Elder recording seems to me to be one from the top drawer. This is a most distinguished and exciting addition to the Hallé’s Vaughan Williams cycle.