Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
A Sea Symphony (1910)
Isobel Baillie (soprano), John Cameron (baritone)
London Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult
rec. 28-30 December 1953 and 1 January 1954, Kingsway Hall, London
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC658 [67.20]
I wonder how many admirers of the composer like myself have been left feeling somewhat underwhelmed by the response so far of musical promoters to the 150th anniversary of the birth of Ralph Vaughan Williams which occurs this year. The BBC are devoting a full month of their Radio 3 feature Composer of the Week to his work and life, and we have received a complete cycle of his symphonies, to be true. But we have no scheduled performances of any of his operas, even his masterpiece The Pilgrim’s Progress which should in any reasonable world form part of the repertoire of all of our national companies. We are not asking for the moon – a staged performance of The poisoned kiss, or even Hugh the Drover, for example – but it should not be beyond the wit of man to produce a really top-flight production (in the period stipulated by the composer) of the ‘morality’ that preoccupied him for most of his composing life, or indeed a staged presentation of his balletic triumph Job. We do at least have plentiful audio representations of the latter; but at present Vaughan Williams’s substantial output for the stage available in video formats is restricted to a solitary (although highly recommendable) Irish television production of Riders to the Sea. This is little short of a national disgrace to those responsible for the promotion of British music.
In the run-up to the Vaughan Williams centenary in 1972 things were rather different. We received a whole raft of first recordings of major choral works – Sancta Civitas and Dona nobis pacem being only two of the magnificent discoveries made then, and nowadays once again relatively neglected – as well as four sets of the operas and stereo cycles of the symphonies from Sir Adrian Boult and André Previn. Even in the decade before then, Decca were avidly keen to place on record a complete cycle of Vaughan Williams symphonies in recordings by Sir Adrian and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, ensuring the presence of the composer at the sessions to guarantee authenticity. The producer, James Walker, was assisted by the young John Culshaw, who observed in his autobiography that the composer “said very little during the sessions because he was totally in favour of Sir Adrian’s approach to his music.” His only contribution to the proceedings appears to have been a “whistling sound which we at first thought was caused by a fault in the tape-recorder; but it was only when one of the musicians pointed out that it was also audible in the hall that we realised that it was coming from Vaughan Williams’ hearing aid.” Unfortunately all the recordings, with the solitary exception of the Eighth Symphony, were made in the days before the coming of stereo; and by the time the Ninth was written, in the year of the composer’s death, Decca had transferred their collective British compositional allegiance to the promotion of Benjamin Britten, with Everest left to pick up the pieces.
Nevertheless this recording of the first of the cycle issued in 1954, remained for more or less a decade the sole representation of any of Vaughan Williams’s major choral works in the catalogues. And it was good. I first encountered the Sea Symphony in a live performance in 1970 when André Previn gave it at a concert in London’s Royal Festival Hall (preceding the release of his RCA disc with the same performers), and I recall my discomfiture at the discovery of the difficulties of balance between the two solo singers, the chorus and the orchestra which clearly caused so many problems in live performance. In fact, I have only once heard a totally satisfactory balance achieved in a live performance. That was some five years ago, when at a performance in Cardiff under John Wilson something close to an ideal was achieved; and that was almost happenstance, since the various choirs (from different geographical locations) and orchestra had inevitably had restricted time for conjoint rehearsal. Otherwise the problems of the tendency of the choir to disappear behind the orchestra, and the two solo singers to submerge beneath the weight of both, can be close to insuperable. VW himself does not help matters; he clearly expects a very large choir, as at one point he specifies the use of a small semi-chorus totalling sixteen female voices (and marked “distant if possible”) which when magnified up to the size of a full choir, sometimes written in as many as twelve parts, must anticipate a body of singers well in excess of a hundred. A BBC prom performance under Sakari Oramo some years ago, with an even larger number of vocalists, clearly demonstrated the dramatic advantages of this.
Now it might be thought that such difficulties could be overcome in the studio, but even with modern techniques that is far from obviously the case. The Vernon Handley performance originally issued on EMI Eminence as part of that conductor’s complete cycle (and selected by EMI for their Vaughan Williams boxed collection issued for the fiftieth anniversary of the composer’s death in 2008) achieves a lifelike balance between chorus and orchestra, but the solo vocalists are reduced to almost a whisper in the context of the whole unless the disc is played at a very high volume; whereupon the climaxes nearly blast the listener from the room. Some years later EMI issued a remastered version, with the soloists conscientiously brought forward in the balance; but now the results sounded rather artificial, with the singers seeming to advance and recede alarmingly from one passage to the next. I have not of course heard all of the multitude of recordings of the Sea Symphony that have emerged from the companies over the years, but merely observe that improvements in recording technology have not necessarily resolved the problems with capturing the subtleties of the score on disc.
The original LPs, by which I first got to know the work, were very much a product of their time; it did not even prove possible to accommodate the final movement on a single side, and a break was made after the opening choral apostrophe to the earth during which the listener had to change from one LP to the next (the score was spread over two full-priced discs, with the suite from The Wasps on the fourth side; the same arrangement was adopted on the first mid-price reissue on Ace of Clubs). Later LP versions managed to avoid breaking any of the movements, and with the advent of CD it became possible to get the whole symphony onto one disc without any interruptions. The mono sound was also typical of its era, with the solo voices placed very forward in the balance, the chorus some way behind, and the orchestra still further submerged. It remained that way on later Decca reissues on LP and cassette (I have not heard any of the CD transfers).
On Andrew Rose’s new Pristine remastering into “ambient stereo” the difference is initially startling, much closer to a natural concert balance with the quieter passages from the solo singers reduced almost to a whisper of sound. The sense of artifice remains, but once the ear adjusts the results are very pleasing and often extremely beautiful.
It is easy at this distance of some seventy years to pick up some individual faults and quirks in the performance. Isobel Baillie, with her peculiarly treble-like vocal tone in places, is an acquired taste particularly at this late stage in her career; and John Cameron also can sound rather plummy and orotund in places. But there are moments, like their thrilling declamation of “O thou transcendent”, when their voices ring out with a truly heroic defiance riding effortlessly over the storm of chorus and orchestra that accompanies and supports them; and this is not simply a matter of sympathetic microphone placement. (Surely I cannot be the only listener who is amazed and astounded to discover that Vaughan Williams actually marks this whole passage as an optional cut in the score. What was he thinking of?)
John Cameron brings a sense of rapt mystery to “On the beach at night alone”, and Boult allows the full sense of stillness to pervade the final section of this movement for orchestra alone; this is far from the simply formal restatement of the opening material required to complete the ternary form of the symphony. The choral tenors sound momentarily overstretched at their line “emblem of man, elate above death” (who can blame them?) but otherwise the large body of amateur singers are solidly in command of music that is often extremely difficult to sing. Vaughan Williams, sitting in the stalls, must have been thoroughly gratified. At that time, nobody would have noticed the elaborately sliding chromatic passage in the third movement which derives almost unchanged from his earlier (and withdrawn) 1900 Bucolic Suite for orchestra. Who said VW was a late developer?
I am delighted to see that Pristine label this disc as “the complete symphonies, volume one” which presumably means that the rest of the Decca cycle is to follow. Some of the performances in this first cycle – the Second, Fourth and Sixth in particular – were not surpassed by Boult’s later stereo versions for EMI. Hopefully too Pristine will license the Everest recording of the Ninth to complete the cycle, as Decca did for one of their boxed sets some years ago.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
See review: Ralph Moore