I do not regret this journey: we took risks, we knew we took them,
things have come out against us, therefore we have no cause for complaint.
These poignant words preface the last movement of the Sinfonia Antartica
and are in a nutshell, the kernel of this full-blown symphony. Vaughan Williams
must have felt inspired by the heroisms and tribulations endured by Scott
and his team and this is felt in the chilly scoring that permeates the piece.
We have had many satisfactory recordings over the years. One recalls the
trailblazingly magisterial Barbirollis world premiere recording and
the trenchant spirituality of Boults equally fine 1953 Decca recording,
both records that have stirred the memories of the avid collector for decades.
I can still remember those haunting final bars creating such a sense of
desolation that I was stupefied for days on end after a listen to the Boult
recording. His 60s remake was not a patch on that unique occasion.
This brings us to this splendid recording under review. Kees Bakels has not
always been lauded as an exemplary Vaughan Williams interpreter. His exciting
recordings of the London and the Third and Sixth have been treated
with some disdain if not plain dismissal by some reviewers. Personally I
thought that the BSOs playing in the Third Symphony was exquisitely
beautiful and the rich Chandos recording rivalled the more superior Handley
performance although that is in a league of its own. Curiously a few years
since Naxos last issued that disc and this excellent coupling has been worth
the long wait.
The first real bonus is in the Movement superscriptions provided on disc.
These are eloquently read by David Timson (of Sherlock Holmes Naxos fame)
and none makes more moving listening than the one quoted in the preface to
this review. Bakels directs with a firm commanding hand and lavishes great
care on the four movements. The First Movement is boldly eloquent with a
really majestic Andante maestoso that leads into a spirited Poco animato.
The Bournemouth brass are heard in their impressive full cry and the ending
of the movement is also shatteringly bleak. The Scherzo is also blisteringly
vivid; here we can almost imagine Scott and his company making their way
through snowstorms and glaciers.
The same goes for the forbidding Landscape which teems with
orchestral detail. Bakels slowish tempi create that right sense of
mystery that is the tonic to our musical inspiration. Wind machines and
percussion are married with some glorious climaxes and here we can appreciate
the full strength of the BSO. And Bakels really scores in the majestic Epilogue,
I would go as far as saying that those final 50 bars are almost as haunting
as Boults own. The choral contributions are also winningly done and
Lynda Russell is particularly succesful in her wordless enunciation.
In the Eighth, one of RVWs most enigmatic symphonies, Bakels has his
work cut out to match his earlier superb effort. This work is rather mysterious
to many but it carries the quintessential RVW charm through its symphonic
veins. I enjoyed Bakels in the Fantasia although there is that much more
passion in Handleys excellent RLPO account on EMI Eminence. The wind
instruments have a field day in the short Scherzo whilst the cavatina holds
that wistful mood in abeyance. The Toccata disappoints a little although
the superb Naxos sound more than makes up for that. The disc is superbly
engineered throughout, a brilliant production by Andrew Walton and his K
& A team. Naxos could not have chosen a more superb cover, the Glacial
Sea is indeed the perfect accompaniment to this rather exceptional release.
Symphony No. 7:
Symphony No. 8: