Vaughan Williams: A Sea Symphony; The Wasps Overture

COMPOSERS: Vaughan Williams
LABELS: Chandos
ALBUM TITLE: Vaughan Williams
WORKS: A Sea Symphony; The Wasps Overture
PERFORMER: Susan Gritton (soprano), Gerald Finley (baritone); London SO & Chorus/Richard Hickox
Few would deny that the Sea Symphony has its great moments, not least the stunning evocation of a huge wave breaking at the very beginning. All too easily though it can lose its purpose in performance, and the tension ebbs away. Richard Hickox has a better grasp than most of this symphony as a whole statement – or, rather, journey. Often he achieves this simply by taking Vaughan Williams’s markings at face value: as in the processional ‘Down from the gardens of Asia’ section in the finale – not the usual portentous plod here, but as the score says, ‘con moto’: ‘with movement’. The finale’s coda does feel like both an arrival and a departure point: tenderly summing up and excitedly looking forward at the same time. The choral singing is as alert and secure as one would expect from Hickox, and the balance with the orchestra is well judged too, with some fine detail emerging more clearly than on any recording I’ve heard before. What I miss in the end is the sense of visionary enthusiasm, caught in isolated but terrific surges by Bernard Haitink (EMI) and sustained so impressively by Paul Daniel (Naxos). Beside them, the climactic choral shout, ‘and shall compactly hold’, in the slow movement is just a little tame here. Gerald Finley is without doubt a noble, warm-toned baritone soloist, but fine as Susan Gritton is, she doesn’t reach the heights of Daniel’s Joan Rogers, or the spine-tingling Felicity Lott with Haitink. It’s Daniel in the end who I feel makes the strongest case for this symphony as a complete experience, and even if the Naxos sound is isn’t quite up to Chandos’s exalted standards, it’s well balanced and clear enough. Stephen Johnson