‘Much the finest piece of sea music that we, a seafaring folk above everything, possess’. The Manchester Guardian wrote that in 1910, when Vaughan Williams conducted the premiere of A Sea Symphony at the Leeds Festival, on his 38th birthday. The paper’s verdict arguably still holds true, although Britten’s Peter Grimes is an obvious rival. Fittingly, perhaps, the inspiration for A Sea Symphony came from across the broad Atlantic.
The poetry of the American Walt Whitman was voguishly popular when Vaughan Williams was an undergraduate at Cambridge University. The composer, a ‘cheerful agnostic’, immediately fastened on the powerful pantheism of Whitman’s poetic vision, and the poet’s intense physical engagement with the world around him.
The music that Whitman’s sea texts elicited has both thrilling viscerality and a strong philosophical undertow, in its climactic vision of the individual soul sailing forth ‘for the deep waters only, where mariner has not yet dared to go’.
The best recording
Sheila Armstrong, John Carol Case; London Philharmonic Choir & Orchestra/Adrian Boult (1968)
EMI 903 5672 (13 discs)
Adrian Boult gave A Sea Symphony its first recording in 1953, and many collectors continue to swear by the crackling urgency of that pioneering interpretation. The stereo remake is, however, a great performance in its own right, and is tough to topple as the best available version.
It is, to begin with, much better recorded than its mono predecessor, with excellent balances between choir, soloists and orchestra, and a satisfyingly meaty impact from brass instruments in particular. No conductor catches better than Boult (right) the elation of the work’s mighty opening paragraph, with a full-throated, confidently prepared London Philharmonic Choir making a stirring contribution.
The soloists are also highly effective. Baritone John Carol Case’s ‘On The Beach At Night, Alone’ is an object lesson in clear diction and poised singing at low dynamic levels; the young soprano Sheila Armstrong (then just 26) is creamy-textured and wonderfully committed.
It is, though, Boult’s inimitable nobility of utterance which really marks out this performance as special. He was approaching 80 when the recording was made, but his grip is undiminished, as is his ability to inject fire into an orchestra’s belly – nobody matches the bacchanalian swirl he summons at ‘Away O Soul!’, as the final voyage to ‘the seas of God’ beckons. This is a classic performance, by one of the great Vaughan Williams interpreters.
Three more great recordings
Yvonne Kenny, Brian Rayner Cook; London Symphony Chorus & Orchestra/Bryden Thomson (1988)
Bryden Thomson was an underrated conductor, and his complete Vaughan Williams symphony cycle has long been prized by aficionados. Thomson’s is a richly atmospheric Sea Symphony, with a turbulent opening movement in which the lash of breakers is thrillingly registered, and the London Symphony Chorus makes a specially full-blooded contribution.
No choir is more moving at ‘Token of all brave captains’, a section built to a heart-touching peroration by the sturdy hand of Thomson on the tiller. The burnished, resonant Chandos engineering lends a bracing al fresco quality, and there is a genuine sense of new vistas opening in the epic ‘Explorers’ finale, a movement shaped with sensitivity by Thomson. For a single-CD copy of A Sea Symphony, you need look no further.
Katherine Broderick, Roderick Williams; Hallé Choir & Orchestra /Mark Elder (2014)
The opening of Mark Elder’s live recording of A Sea Symphony rivals Boult’s in its grandeur, and when Roderick Williams introduces his ‘rude brief recitative’ it’s obvious that Elder has one of the oakiest, most characterful baritone soloists on record.
The Hallé Choir is on its toes throughout, but its impact is hampered by the relatively dry, boxed-in acoustic of the Bridgewater Hall. Elder’s broad tempos – he takes five minutes longer for the work than most rivals – also occasionally sap a sense of forward momentum, particularly in the outer movements. But this is still a strongly stated interpretation ofVaughan Williams’s sea vision, and sounds at its best in 24-bit download format.
Joan Rodgers, William Shimell; Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir & Orchestra/Vernon Handley (1988)
Warner Classics 7777698675
Vernon Handley was a pupil of Adrian Boult, and shared his mentor’s ability to articulate the architectural outlines of a piece of music, without stinting on local detail or diluting moments of raw excitement. Handley’s is a very satisfying Sea Symphony, broadly similar in profile to Boult’s, and boasting a confident, incisive choral contribution. The soloists are excellent too, baritone William Shimell dark-hued and authoritative, soprano Joan Rodgers ardently involving.
Like Boult, Handley binds the finale together in masterly fashion, and benefits from a rangy recording, as pleasingly layered as any on record. Download is the only way to buy this absorbing performance at present, and it’s to be hoped that Warner Classics has a CD resissue of Handley’s entire Vaughan Williams symphony series in the pipeline.
And one to avoid…
Should curiosity tempt you to add The State Symphony Orchestra of the USSR Ministry of Culture’s recording to your collection, resist it. Gennady Rozhdestvensky’s astute, sympathetic conducting isn’t the difficulty. The problem is the soloists (and to some extent the chorus), whose sketchy command of English is distracting, to the point where words are undecipherable. This is one instance where something irreplaceable is lost in translation.