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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) A Sea Symphony (1903-09) [62:54] The Lark Ascending [14:33]
James Ehnes (violin)
Sarah Fox (soprano); Mark Stone (baritone)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra /Andrew Manze
rec. 2017, Blackheath Concert Halls, London. DDD
Texts included ONYX 4185 [77:32]
And still they come. No sooner had Martyn Brabbins and his BBC “crew” weighed anchor with their version of A Sea Symphony (review), than Captain Andrew Manze and the good ship RLPO come ‘steaming in and out of port’. This is the penultimate issue in their VW symphony cycle: only numbers 7 and 9 remain.
Before discussing the symphony, however, it’s appropriate to say something about the coupling. I have many recordings of A Sea Symphony in my collection. Most of them come without a coupling. Not only does Andrew Manze have room for an extra work on his CD but it’s quite a significant one and that’s because his timing for the symphony is one of the shortest overall that I’ve encountered. Conductors such as Boult, Elder, Handley and Previn have taken between 65 and 70 minutes on disc and the most recent recording that has come my way, the version by Martyn Brabbins, played for just under 68 minutes. At first sight, The Lark Ascending may seem an unusual pairing but the symphony was a radical addition to the genre of British symphonies when it appeared and, as Lewis Foreman asserts in his perceptive booklet essay, The Lark was “revolutionary” too. There’s a special interest in this performance in that both the soloist and the conductor are noted violinists. Maybe that accounts for the evident empathy at every turn. Ehnes plays absolutely beautifully while Manze leads a sensitive accompaniment. This is a very poetic rendition of VW’s evocative small-scale masterpiece.
I found a great deal to admire in Martyn Brabbins’ recent recording but it had one significant drawback: the baritone soloist, Marcus Farnsworth was, I felt, “rather monochrome”. Manze’s baritone is Mark Stone and I find him much better suited to the role. His voice is bigger and fuller of tone; in short, he has more vocal presence than Farnsworth. This pays clear dividends in passages such as “Indomitable, untamed as thee” in the first movement. He’s also, frankly, far more interesting than Farnsworth in the second movement, ‘On the beach at night alone’. Overall, Stone is an asset to the Manze performance.
I find it far less easy to choose between Manze’s soprano, Sarah Fox, and Elizabeth Llewellyn, who sings for Brabbins. Indeed, I’m not going to choose: both do very well. I noticed one minor but unusual point of detail in the Manze performance. On the very last page of the first movement the soprano’s final phrase has the words “Behold the sea itself”. In my experience sopranos always sing this but the vocal score contains an alternative in brackets: “one flag above the rest”, which Miss Fox sings. I wonder if that was her choice – influenced by the vowels, perhaps – or the conductor’s.
The RLPO have played extremely well for Manze throughout this cycle so far and they do so again here. Their colleagues in the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir also make a sterling contribution, though I think the BBC Symphony Chorus on the Brabbins version are even more incisive. That may be due in part to the respective recordings – the Hyperion sound is somewhat more immediate than the Onyx recording – but I think it’s also a question of the singing. For example, well though the Liverpudlians do, I think the choral contribution to the third movement, ‘The Waves’ has rather more punch in the Brabbins performance. Similarly, in the finale, the climax at “Finally shall come the poet” is impressive in Manze’s account but I hear even more grandeur in the Brabbins version.
In those two examples that I’ve just cited my preference for the Brabbins performance over the Manze is as much as anything down to the conducting. As so often in his cycle to date, I find Manze not only persuasive but also fresh in his approach. In his rendition of A Sea Symphony, though, I think he just fails to seal the deal on occasions. For instance, I found him convincing in most of the last movement, ‘The Explorers’. However, the very opening of that movement is slightly more expansive and certainly more mysterious in Brabbins’ hands. In the opening movement, he adopts quite a swift speed at “And out of these a chant for all sailors” [track 1, 5:20] – certainly, he’s swifter than Brabbins. In effect, he anticipates the animando marking that comes a dozen or so bars later and the effect of VWs injunction to speed up is thereby blunted, even if there is something to admire in the urgency Manze brings to the music. Later in the same movement he’s also a bit fast for my taste in the whole of the choral passage that begins softly at “Token of all brave captains”. Again, in the second movement I think his treatment of the climatic passage “This vast similitude” is just too swift; as a result, the climax feels undercooked. I must say, though, that there’s also a great deal to admire in his interpretation. I said I was convinced overall by his way with the vast finale and nowhere more so than in the rapturous extended duet that begins at “O we can wait no longer”. Here, his controlled urgency really pays off and his two soloists rise to the occasion splendidly. If, then, there are misses in his performance, they are narrow misses and there’s much compensation to be found elsewhere.
In the end, then, this recording of A Sea Symphony, though I enjoyed it, doesn’t challenge the best in the catalogue which, in my book, are Boult’s second (EMI) recording and Sir Mark Elder’s account with the Hallé. However, it’s a worthy addition to what has been a fine cycle and those who have been collecting the issues as they appear will want to add this performance. I await Andrew Manze’s take on the Seventh and Ninth symphonies with keen anticipation.