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Vaughan Williams sea PASC658

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
A Sea Symphony
Isobel Baillie (soprano)
John Cameron (baritone)
London Philharmonic Choir & Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult
rec. 28-30 December 1953 & 1 January 1954, Kingsway Hall, London. Ambient Stereo

Right from the start of the remastering of this classic recording by Pristine, the improvement is startling, from the reduction in hiss, to the rumbling amplitude of the thunderous bass timpani, to the spread of the choral voices which are given new breadth and spaciousness; this is an undoubted triumph. There will of course always be a little glare and blare – remember, this was a mono recording made nearly seventy years ago as I write – but distortion is minimal and Andrew Rose has wisely judged just how much treble to tame, so while there is still some residual background noise. it is barely noticeable, especially as so much of this music is sung and played by tutti, con forza.

John Cameron’s neat, plaintive baritone with its fast vibrato and Isobel Baillie’s pure, piping, very British soprano both emerge refurbished, too, their crisp diction rendering the absence of Walt Whitman’s text negligible. Baillie soars in alt and Cameron brings considerable steel to his declamatory passages, as well as singing with soft, steady beauty in the lyrical sections, delivering his challenging top A at the end of the first part of the first movement with great poise. The energy and commitment of the chorus are admirable, too, driven on by Boult’s urgent beat without losing cohesion or precision. Every performer, including the orchestral players, sounds galvanised by his direction and that enthusiasm is now all the more apparent in this refurbishment; there is a real ecstasy about the “singing his songs” section in the fourth movement.

On a more mundane, practical note, I am pleased to see that in terms of CD packaging, Pristine have moved away from plastic jewel cases to slimline cardboard digipacks.

Until now, the preferred option for Boult conducting this ground-breaking work has been the later, 1968, EMI recording, mainly by virtue of its superior sound, but this older recording has greater vigour, equally fine - if not better - soloists and better choral discipline. I would now urge anyone new to the work to acquire this as a first choice and those who already love their old Decca/Belart recording should replace it with this exceptionally successful remastering into Pristine’s trademark Ambient Stereo. There is, I should note, a Decca remaster from the early 2000s, which I don't own (review).

Ralph Moore

Previous review: Paul Corfield Godfrey



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