Vaughan Williams A Sea Symphony
Elizabeth Llewellyn (soprano), Marcus Farnsworth (baritone); BBC Symphony Chorus & Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins
Hyperion CDA 68245 70:53 mins
Vaughan Williams’s Sea Symphony of 1910 is, like Mahler’s contemporary Eighth, a fully choral symphony – that is, including the chorus throughout rather than in one movement or a few. This places a good deal of emphasis on the choral forces; but here the BBC Symphony Chorus, prepared by its new director Neil Ferris, maintains its top-notch standard, singing with full tone, a wide range of dynamics, crisp attacks, and in general a boldness matching Walt Whitman’s all-embracing poetry.
However, as Vaughan Williams wrote, the orchestra has ‘an equal share’ in the work’s musical ideas. The BBC Symphony Orchestra makes its own vividly virtuosic contribution, not least in the scherzo movement, ‘The Waves’; credit is due also to Martyn Brabbins, in expert control of the work’s internal balance and its dramatic pacing, and to the production team in Blackheath Concert Halls. However, the recorded balance is less successful in leaving the soloists in a natural perspective rather than bringing them to the fore (as the eyes do for the listener in the concert hall). This hardly affects Elizabeth Llewellyn, whose fine soprano rides the choral waves thrillingly; but it doesn’t do any favours to Marcus Farnsworth, whose baritone is left sounding clean and clear but lacking in character. There’s an intriguing bonus, a 1925 Whitman setting for unison voices with piano or (as here) strings. Vaughan Williams saved some of his best melodies for unison songs: perhaps the genre is due for a revival?