Vaughan Williams: A Sea Symphony

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Vaughan Williams
LABELS: Naxos
WORKS: A Sea Symphony
PERFORMER: Joan Rodgers (soprano), Christopher Maltman (baritone); Bournemouth SO & Chorus/Paul Daniel
CATALOGUE NO: 8.557059
Like a lot of people, I’ve tended to see Vaughan Williams’s Sea Symphony as a set of great moments separated by long, rather flaccid stretches – not a single visionary statement like the Tallis Fantasia, finished just a year after the Symphony. That impression wasn’t contradicted by my previous favourite recording, Bernard Haitink on EMI, which was impressive for its gorgeous vistas rather than for any sustained narrative thrust. Which only makes this new version all the more surprising. Yes, there are the great moments, some worthy to stand beside Haitink if sampled in small competitive chunks. But what’s really remarkable in this performance is the way Vaughan Williams’s music seems to match the questing spirit of Walt Whitman’s verse. You may still conclude that the Sea Symphony isn’t consistent in quality, but I don’t see how you can miss the sense of continuous ebb and flow. Paul Daniel doesn’t push the music along (though his tempi do tend to be livelier than Haitink’s), but his feeling for the long phrase, and also for the sense of the words (admirably enunciated by chorus and soloists), makes even the early stages of the huge finale compelling – you can sense that something is brewing on the horizon.

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If soprano Joan Rodgers doesn’t quite have the ringing purity of Haitink’s Felicity Lott, she’s still wonderfully musical and touchingly expressive, while the strong, ardent baritone singing of Christopher Maltman is a clear gain. The recording brings the soloists well forward, just occasionally at the expense of the odd choral detail; but the chorus-orchestra balance is exemplary – more convincing than on the EMI recording. A clear top recommendation. Stephen Johnson