VAUGHAN WILLIAMS A Sea Symphony (Manze)
Goodness, how spoilt for choice we are becoming in this repertoire! The fourth instalment in Andrew Manze’s Vaughan Williams symphony cycle couples a delectably articulate performance of The Lark Ascending (featuring James Ehnes at his customarily unruffled best) with a watchful, impressively agile account of the mighty Sea Symphony. Manze directs with scrupulous sensitivity and a shrewd ear for detail (in the Scherzo especially you hear more of RVW’s brilliant string-writing than you would have ever thought possible), has an experienced and intelligent pair of vocal soloists, and secures some finely drilled and conspicuously eager results from his highly accomplished RLPO forces. The recording, too, has both pleasing focus and analytical clarity to commend it, even if a fraction greater ambient glow might not have gone amiss.
So why, even after a number of hearings, do I continue to harbour tiny doubts? Well, returning to Martyn Brabbins’s rather more expansive BBC SO version (Hyperion, 10/18), I find it has an extra elemental charge, exploratory zeal, richness of sonority, majestic sweep and frequently jaw-dropping sense of spectacle that thrill to the marrow every time. Manze’s finale in particular never quite plumbs the depths to the same consistent degree it does in Brabbins’s perceptive reading, which manages to fuse this ambitious canvas’s poetic reach, emotional pull and architectural splendour to nourishingly whole effect. When push comes to shove, then, I would not be inclined to place this painstakingly prepared newcomer ahead of Brabbins’s gloriously unforced account – to say nothing of the 1953 Boult (7/94), Handley (2/89), Haitink (1/90) and Elder (A/15) – but anyone who has been collecting Manze’s never-less-than-stimulating RVW series should most certainly investigate.