VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: A Sea Symphony (Symphony No. 1).
Joan Rodgers, soprano; Christopher Maltman, baritone; Bournemouth Symphony Chorus and Orch/Paul Daniel, cond.
NAXOS 8.557059 (B) (DDD) TT: 63:54
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More than worthy. Vaughan Williams's Sea Symphony (the composer started numbering his symphonies only with the fourth) is a curious hybrid, like a platypus. Mainly, it stands -- along with Parry's Job and Elgar's Apostles -- firmly in the tradition of the late Romantic British oratorio. However, it's also a true symphony with a first-movement sonata-allegro, a song-like second, a scherzo third, and a poetically and musically visionary last movement.

The craft of the work is tremendous, even at the relatively mundane level of finding texts that would fit into the musical scheme. The passages come, for the most part, from the obscure corners of Walt Whitman's poetry, which obviously means that Vaughan Williams knew it quite well. I doubt if many read Whitman much these days, except for other poets and serious readers, but at one point he was Modern Poetry -- a way out of Tennysonian and Browningesque conventions, if not clichés. "Advanced," mainly English-speaking, composers of the early part of the century set him a lot, and this symphony was not even Vaughan Williams's first "go" at Whitman. The irregular beat of Whitman's verse, the ever-changing phrase lengths, make musical setting difficult. Indeed, many early composers rewrote Whitman to force his wilder rhythms into hymnodic strait-jackets. Occasionally, Vaughan Williams has trouble getting in all the words but for the most part comes up with a "natural" fit, and furthermore he uses the text Whitman actually wrote. He seems to have lived with the words for a long time.

The symphony poses huge challenges, both interpretative and technical, for the orchestra and choir. The very opening is one of the great orchestral strokes in the literature -- a syncopated fanfare and the unaccompanied chorus declaiming, "Behold, the sea itself," with the orchestra coming in with a roar on the word "sea." It's as if a great curtain lifts and you suddenly see an immense ocean on the other side. The counterpoint is busy, in the way of late Romantic orchestral writing, though certainly less busy than Strauss's. Paul Daniel tends to give an efficient, rather than penetrating reading (the first two movements especially), although he has his moments in the important finale. Nevertheless, in any account, the chorus must carry the symphony, since it shoulders the brunt of the communicative work. The symphony has a message, conveyed through the words. Consequently, a listener must be able to pick up what the singers talk about. Soprano soloist Joan Rodgers does well enough. Christopher Maltman has allowed the beginning of several annoying vocal habits to creep into his singing -- scooping and swooping to notes and aspirating attacks for no good reason, either vocal or interpretive. Perhaps they're bad habits he contracted from opera. Nevertheless, these have not yet destroyed his musical line, and he is one fine communicative singer, with much of the subtlety you find in a great Lieder performer. Simply put, he knows how to recite poetry. But the chorus is the real star and leads this account from good up to the front rank. I've heard Boult's Decca (mono) and EMI (stereo) recordings, as well as Previn, Andrew Davis, Haitink, and Thomson. Paul Daniel has the best chorus by far. For one thing, you can actually understand their texts. Their diction and rhythm are superb. At times, particularly in the third-movement scherzo, "The Waves," Vaughan Williams stuffs so many words in such a short time into singers' mouths, it becomes at times impossible to spit them all out. Bournemouth does better than anyone else I've heard. Furthermore, the a cappella passages, almost always at a dynamic just this side of hearing, are rock-solid and fill you -- as the composer intended -- with a sense of awe. Absolutely thrilling work.

My one serious complaint concerns the engineering. Achieving a balance of forces poses a huge challenge. You run the danger of having the orchestra cover up the chorus and of both covering up the soloists. On this recording, you can hear everybody, but the engineers have painted a rather crude sonic picture. No balance like this exists in real life. The soloists seem to have been recorded not only on separate mikes but in a completely different studio. They're incredibly forward, practically singing in your ear, while everybody else remains on stage. Obvious electronic fakery. I've heard other performances with a more natural balance and the requisite clarity, so it's not impossible.

My favorite interpretation remains mono Boult with Isobel Baillie and John Cameron, even though the forces aren't as sharp as others. Boult invests the work with a depth and real love that not even he reached in his stereo remake. That said, this account is at least as good as anybody's other than Boult's, and it's a bargain disc besides. Hail Naxos!

S.G.S. (September 2004)