VAUGHAN WILLIAMS A Sea Symphony (Brabbins)
Martyn Brabbins follows up his outstandingly lucid account of Vaughan Williams’s A London Symphony in its first published edition of 1920 (11/17) with this no less distinguished traversal of A Sea Symphony. His is a painstakingly prepared and intelligently paced conception, combining a perceptive awareness of the grander scheme (climaxes are built and resolved with unerring authority), exemplary attention to detail and mastery of texture (I don’t think I’ve ever heard the dusky outer portions of the slow movement sound more magically luminous). Throughout, the BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra respond with thrilling accomplishment and unflagging enthusiasm, the Scherzo (precisely Allegro brillante as marked) especially exhilarating in its fiery thrust and giddy coordination.
Both Elizabeth Llewellyn and Marcus Farnsworth sing with attractively fresh timbre and impeccable enunciation, their memorably unforced contribution reminding me somewhat of Sheila Armstrong and John Carol Case on Adrian Boult’s stereo recording (EMI/Warner, 12/68); listen from 14'37" in the finale (‘O soul thou pleasest me, I thee’) to hear them at their intimate best – and how skilfully Brabbins negotiates the magnificent pages which follow (that towering tutti at ‘Sail forth – steer for the deep waters only’ will have you gasping in its exultant impact). Superbly controlled, too, are the work’s awestruck closing measures to cap a majestic interpretation that I can unhesitatingly place in the front rank alongside the 1953 Boult (7/94), Handley (2/89), Haitink (1/90) and Elder (Hallé, A/15).
We get an intriguing bonus in the shape of Darest thou now, O soul, just three minutes in duration and another setting of words from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass for unison chorus and string orchestra dating from 1925. The text will be familiar to many from Toward the Unknown Region (which gave the composer one of his earliest successes at the 1907 Leeds Festival), and the present arrangement (attributed to ‘WH’ on the manuscript) may conceivably be the work of his good friend William Henry Hadow (1859-1937), for whose 1931 book English Music Vaughan Williams penned an introduction.
Resplendently engineered by Simon Eadon at Blackheath Concert Halls, this is, quite simply, a release not be missed – and fingers crossed for the remaining seven RVW symphonies from Brabbins and Hyperion.