Vaughan Williams: A Sea Symphony
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This beautifully recorded, no-nonsense, not overly sentimental, quick-tempo account of Vaughan Williams's lush choral symphony is most welcome. It's a work that matches the mystical--Walt Whitman's poetry--with some folklike sea rhythms Vaughan Williams tosses into the mix. Though it's perhaps not as warm as some versions, conductor Robert Spano opts for lots of excitement in the grand moments ("Sail forth" in the last movement, for instance). The warmth is written into the music anyway and is present no matter what. The second movement's stillness is as impressive as the "perfect storm" sections. The playing of the Atlanta Symphony is big and beautiful, and soprano Christine Goerke sings brightly and with ease. Her voice is just the right weight to ride the climaxes and sound intimate in the gentler moments. This is highly recommended. --Robert Levine
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The baritone soloist, Canadian Brett Polegato gets the brunt of the work as soloist and his voice is solid across his range; steady, secure, and lyrical, he probably ranks among my favorite baritones in this work. American soprano Christina Goerke, known for her work in Wagner, has a meaty voice, also quite powerful, but I think I prefer the fizzier, brighter voice of Yvonne Kenny which cuts through the orchestra better and sings a bit flashier than Goerke. Both soloists are easily heard over the orchestra and chorus, but seem perfectly natural in the sound space. Atlanta’s orchestra has always been well represented by the Telarc label and this is no different; they are certainly a world-class ensemble and give a confident performance here. Henry Wood Hall is a drier-sounding recording venue than I am used to (because of the large performing forces, many ensembles choose churches to perform in), but no musical oomph is lost here by the instrumentalists.
The best aspect of this recording is the American chorus, one whose timber I greatly prefer over some London performances. Their diction is crisp where some recordings struggle with balance and clarity, and while I might have liked them miked even a tad bit closer, the chorus is confident, if not quite as grandiose as I would like. Since all of the vocal performers are North American, the singers obviously are singing the Whitman text in its native accent, but since Vaughan Williams was English and A Sea Symphony has been a performance standard-bearer for that country, it takes some getting used to a different performing culture; nothing bad, just another way for this recording to stand out. Spano’s direction is good, and since Vaughan Williams liked faster speeds that have since been slowed and over-romanticized over time, this version may be a more accurate vision of the composer. That being said, some of the majestic moments are cursorily missed and thrills are chosen over subtelty; the third movement choral scherzo benefits most from this, but the outer movements left me wanting in spots. Taking all of this in, I appreciate a different interpretation, and it will stay in my circle of Sea Symphony recordings.
My usual go-to recording is Bryden Thomson's on Chandos, whose soprano soloist I love and its music making pushes and pulls every last bit of drama out of the music; the LSO is superbly represented on this recording, but the London chorus has some unusual timbers in the soprano sections and the chorus is more of a wash of sound compared to this much newer recording, but it’s inherent grandiose drama regarding the measure of man's existence has spoken most to me over the years. Hickox and Previn also gave some good accounts with the same London performers, Naxos’ Paul Daniel has some of the crispest choral diction along with similar speed to Spano, and the legendary Boult has the experience of knowing and performing in front of the composer. Otherwise, Spano gives a good companion recording to these others with typical outstanding sonics from Telarc; I suggest hearing as many as you can!