VAUGHAN WILLIAMS Symphony No 1 – Haitink
This is a breathtakingly good recording in all respects. I do not suppose that any concert performance of A Sea Symphony since the first in Leeds in 1910 has given such a comprehensive account of the score. Through superb recording technique by EMI, the difficult balance between choir, soloists and orchestra is achieved in a way that is virtually impossible in a live performance, so from that viewpoint alone even those who think they know the work inside-out will be hearing it as if for the first time. The choral singing is magnificent, whether in huge climaxes or in those passages where the sound is reduced to a thread.
Haitink's interpretation is the finest I have heard. Slower than most of his British colleagues, he has penetrated unerringly to those qualities which make this a great and moving work whatever its structural failing: its grandeur, nobility, vision and sense of a launching-out into new worlds. He conducts the scherzo excitingly, but it is in the meditative passages—the 'vastnesses of space'—that he is so moving, giving the music a Brucknerian radiance and spirituality. I admit that I love the work inordinately, and that love has been intensified by this far-seeing and deep-reaching performance, in which unsuspected details of scoring are perceptively exposed.
Both soloists are in fine voice. Felicity Lott's high notes soaring above the choir are thrilling and her beautiful enunciation of the text is a joy in itself. There is a slight fragility in her tone that I find very touching. In Handley's RLPO performance (EMI Eminence), Joan Rodgers gives by far the most dramatic account of the soprano part I have heard—both these lovely English singers bring special personal qualities to the music. It is just a pity that the Handley recording is marred by its faulty balance so that one needs to have constant and irritating recourse to the volume control. Jonathan Summers, for Haitink, gives a robust and also a sensitive account of the baritone part. Again, for Handley, William Shimell is very fine. But for orchestral playing, choral and solo singing and above all for interpretation and recording, the Haitink performance is outstanding by whatever standard one cares to judge it.'