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CD Review

Ralph Vaughan Williams

Symphony #1 "A Sea Symphony"

Benita Valente, soprano
Thomas Allen, baritone
Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus/Leonard Slatkin
RCA Victor Red Seal 09026-61197-2
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Born at Down Ampney, Gloucestershire, in 1872, Ralph Vaughan Williams is a modern miracle of Western art, having broken through his musically lagging society to become one of the twentieth century's most prolific composers. While developing his talents at Charterhouse School, Cambridge, and the Royal College of Music, England's symphonic culture was limited mostly to European import and whatever could be generated by lesser-known natives. The country had (and still has) a rich tradition of orchestras and ensembles, but its compositional ranks were anemic – not unlike the mid-to-late nineteenth century in America when figures such as John Knowles Paine, George Chadwick, and Horatio Parker were seeking a national identity. Eventually, the compositional landscape of England flourished, giving way to famous names that included Vaughan Williams, Edward Elgar, Gustav Holst, and Frank Bridge.

The music trailblazers of England at century's turn were men like Hubert Parry, Irish émigré Charles Villiers Stanford (both teachers of Vaughan Williams), and John Stainer. It was in this context that Vaughan Williams began work on his Sea Symphony, which became the first of nine symphonies he wrote over a fifty-year period. A Sea Symphony successfully premièred at the Leeds Music Festival in 1910 and established Vaughan Williams as one of the leading British composers of his day.

It is probably no coincidence that A Sea Symphony is written in cantata form with soloists and large chorus, reflecting the prominence of choral festivals in English life. Vaughan Williams was already established as a composer for voice, having written several arrangements and co-edited the English Hymnal with Percy Dearmer. A Sea Symphony is massive for a first-time symphonist, using soprano and baritone, chorus, and large orchestra with settings of verse from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. Vaughan Williams relied on Whitman at several points in his career, the American's broad narratives perfectly combining with Vaughan Williams' lush harmonizations.

A Sea Symphony is grueling in length and shape, timing over 65 minutes in four expansive sections. The work is extremely ambitious for a debut symphony and Vaughan Williams, already 37 years old by the time of its completion, was undaunted by the material at hand. There is never a moment's question in his handling of the text, yielding passages that are highly evocative. Vaughan Williams also maintains a safe distance from cliché, as the orchestra presents nautical ideas in ways other than we're used to hearing.

Vaughan Williams, however, failed to avoid the derivativeness that so often plagues a new composer's work. Those already familiar with Vaughan Williams' "mature" symphonies will be taken aback when hearing A Sea Symphony for the first time. That impressionistic style evocative of an English meadow or the Thames River (influenced by his lessons with Maurice Ravel in 1908) is mostly absent, instead taking its cue from German sources, particularly Wagner. Sections of the finale ("The Explorers") also sound oddly Mahlerian. But as a whole, the symphony offers vivid imagery, is entirely upbeat, and is filled to its brim in celebration of human endeavor. A Sea Symphony may be derivative and lacking in overall tension – there is no specific "conflict" in Whitman's text to propel the music forward – but it easily reaches the list of major symphonic achievements by an up-and-coming talent.

Leonard Slatkin, longtime music director and Grammy Award winner with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, has recorded the entire cycle of Vaughan Williams symphonies for RCA Victor Red Seal, the first comprising disc 09026-61197-2. Symphony #1's soloist roles are filled by Benita Valente and Sir Thomas Allen, with Slatkin conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus of London. Slatkin, a conductor who is unflashy, technically competent, and highly dependable, leads this solid performance by all concerned, especially the fluent solo outings of Valente and Allen.

Besides the usual challenges in mixing soloists, chorus, and orchestra, A Sea Symphony has the task of keeping its listener's interest for over an hour when nothing particularly dramatic occurs in Whitman's poetry. The listener's attention can flag in a choral piece speaking rather beautifully of waves ("Larger and smaller waves in the spread of the ocean yearnfully flowing") that are no threat to the sailors who ride them. This is in marked contrast to Vaughan Williams' Sinfonia Antartica, completed in 1952, that posits a sense of doom for Captain Scott's expedition to the South Pole. A Sea Symphony can thus end badly in less competent hands; but Slatkin, with his talent for bringing out all elements of the orchestra, keeps the Philharmonia at an intense level and, consequently, our interest by stressing motivic development rather than just painting with sounds.

Born at Delano, California, in 1934, soprano Benita Valente was a private student of Lotte Lehmann and attended the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Valente is mostly known for her performances of Mozart and Handel; she has also won a Grammy for her interpretation of Schoenberg's Second String Quartet and performed works by composers such as William Bolcom and Richard Wernick. Sir Thomas Allen, mastering the baritone part in this recording, is considered Britain's finest of his voice category. He first appeared as an operatic lead in Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia at the Welsh National Opera in 1969 and spent most of the 1970s at Covent Garden. Allen has made occasional appearances in film and played Sweeney Todd in a 2003-4 Royal Opera House production.

This RCA Red Seal CD has the brand's usual sound quality, with clear playback and sufficient depth. An ongoing flaw in RCA's recordings, however, is a bottomed-out volume that forces stereos to be raised higher than usual. The accompanying booklet offers a short and somewhat indulgent history of the work by Vaughan Williams' wife, Ursula. To RCA's credit, Whitman's text is included, despite already being in English. The CD is a worthy addition to any Vaughan Williams enthusiast's set, although A Sea Symphony rates as more of a striking debut-piece than one of absolute genius.

Copyright © 2009, Paul-John Ramos