Sunday, 8 November 2015

Those who love Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony should acquire this remarkably fine performance from Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra without delay

The Hallé Orchestra  are really on top form as demonstrated by their latest release on their label of Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony. Here Sir Mark Elder and the orchestra are joined by the Hallé Choir , Hallé Youth Choir , Schola Cantorum  and Ad Solem  with soloists Katherine Broderick (soprano)  and Roderick Williams (baritone)

CD HLL 7542

An early work, written between 1903 and 1909 and revised in 1923, it was one of the works that revealed Vaughan Williams to be the leading English composer of his generation. It was first performed at the Leeds Festival in 1910 and sets words from various poems found in Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass.

The first movement, A Song for All Seas, All Ships (Moderato maestoso) of A Sea Symphony is given a glorious opening, beautifully paced,  especially after the choral ‘Behold the Seas itself…’ when the following passages have a fine inevitable flow. There is a fine rhythmic pulse in the orchestra before baritone Roderick Williams enters for ‘Today a rude brief recitative …’ where he brings a wonderfully clear, fine tone. The agility of the chorus is really very fine, bringing a tremendous sense of freedom.  Roderick Williams is surely one of our finest baritones especially in repertoire such as this with his strong, secure, finely held long phrases and fine tone. He brings a wonderfully phrased sense of drama.

When soprano Katherine Broderick enters with ‘Flaunt out O Sea your separate flags of nations!’ she displays a lovely texture in her dramatically enunciated phrases. In the longer breathed phrases of ‘But do you reserve especially for yourself and for the soul of man one flag above the rest.’ she reveals a voice of richness, strength and wonderfully musical tone and when she  sounds out in  ‘Token of all brave captains…’  she is amongst the finest. The female chorus finds a lovely counterbalance in the following quieter passages with the Hallé Orchestra bringing some really wonderfully, gently subtle moments. The chorus rises to a fine peak before quietening as Williams enters for ‘A pennant universal, subtly waving all time’ the orchestra providing a lovely rippling, undulating orchestral accompaniment. I’ve never heard the orchestral part here done so beautifully. When Katherine Broderick joins, all these forces blend superbly to bring about the climax of this movement. When Broderick rises over all the others she is exceptionally fine and as she reprises the words ‘Behold the sea itself…’ she brings almost mezzo richness of tone.

Sir Mark Elder brings a lovely deep heft to the opening bars of On the Beach at Night Alone (Largo sostenuto) creating a wonderful hushed, expectant atmosphere. This is a real nocturne such as Whistler might have conceived. When Roderick Williams enters with the chorus quietly echo his words with all of Vaughan Williams’ fine orchestration revealed. This soloist phrases the text wonderfully, bringing a lovely clarity and fine tone. His is such a musical voice, totally unforced. Elder draws such subtleties in this movement before allowing the chorus and soloist to breath a fine expressiveness into ‘A vast similitude interlocks all.’ They get the sense of flow and tempi just right here, with a fine underlying orchestral pulse. There is a finely controlled climax for the chorus and orchestra at ‘This vast similitude spans them …’ before setting the atmosphere for the baritone to bring back ‘On the beach at night alone’ with some of this composers finest orchestral passages. Elder knows just how to subtly turn up the tempo at times here to point up the music before it is allowed to sink into the darkness.

The chorus bring a lightness of texture to Scherzo - The Waves (Allegro brillante) with Elder encouraging a buoyancy that fully evokes the surges of the sea. There is a fine orchestral rubato, a terrific ebb and flow, whipping up some terrific passages. Later orchestral passages bring some lovely moments, subtle little shapings with this chorus bringing a real sense of urgency to their singing and a great precision in the concluding ‘...following’ to end.

In the final movement, The Explorers (Grave e molto adagio - Andante con moto) what fine, clear diction this large chorus bring to the gentle ‘O vast Rondure, swimming in space’ with some absolutely wonderful singing. Guest choral director, James Burton deserves a special mention here. This chorus bring a fine rubato over a subtly shifting orchestral layer with Elder always seemingly seeking out the longer musical vision. The Hallé bring some quite wonderful passages, so sensitively handled.  The tenor and basses subtly pick up the tempo at ‘Ah, who shall sooth these feverish children.’  Elder handles all the transitions of tempi to perfection building some fine choral layers. ‘Yet soul be sure the first intent remains’ brings a wonderfully restrained tempo before slowly rising to a fine climax at ‘Finally shall come the poet worthy of that name’ a spectacularly fine moment.

‘O we can wait no longer, We too shall take ship, O Soul’ brings a wonderful blend of solo voices with soprano and baritone bringing the most exquisite singing, beautifully shaped in ‘Sailing the seas or on the hills, or Waking in the night.’ When the soloists, chorus and orchestra rise at ‘Oh thou transcendent’ what a spine tingling moment it is.  There are some of Roderick Williams’ finest moments in ‘Swiftly I shrivel at the thought of God’ before the chorus enter for ‘Greater than stars or suns.’ Soloists, chorus and orchestra bring a fine impetus to the climax at the words ‘Sail forth – steer for the deep waters only before leading to a wonderfully expansive, beautifully controlled, hushed coda.

If you love this work then you should acquire this remarkably fine performance without delay. The live recording from Bridgwater Hall, Manchester, UK is excellent, allowing a real breadth to the sound. Applause is excised.

The late Michael Kennedy’s notes are all that one could wish for and there are full English texts.

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