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Vaughan Williams, Ralph: Sea Symphony (CD) BBC Music Magazine 2004

Vaughan Williams:

A Sea Symphony (CD)


Composer Ralph Vaughan-Williams
Conductor Leonard Slatkin
Joan Rodgers (soprano)
Simon Keenlyside (baritone)
The BBC Symphony Chorus
Philharmonia Chorus
Trinity College of Music Chamber Choir (off-stage conductor Stephen Jackson)
The BBC Symphony Orchestra
Recorded live at the Royal Albert Hall, London on 10 September 2001
Playing time is over 64 minutes

Exclusive CD only available with BBC Music Magazine (Volume 12 No 12) which appeared in 2004

Order 8/2004 issue in US by phone (1 800) 234-6706 or by e-mail at bbcmag@neodata.com; outside US by phone (0870) 444 7024 or by e-mail at bbcmusic@galleon.co.uk

What the critics say

James Fenton, The Guardian July 17, 2004

The melody lingers on

The August issue of BBC Music Magazine carries a cover CD of A Sea Symphony by Vaughan Williams. I remember a particular interest and excitement in hearing a choral society performance of this as a child, not so much because of the music as because of Walt Whitman’s words. This was the first time I had ever encountered free verse. It didn’t seem shocking, or daring, or original. It simply seemed unlike anything I had encountered before, and I didn’t know what it was.

Whitman’s free verse, with its immensely long lines, demonstrated that poetry could do well without metre and rhyme, and could rely solely on diction and cadence. The diction alone identified it immediately as a sort of poetry, and all its thoughts (in the passages Vaughan Williams had chosen from Leaves of Grass) were elevated. So it did not seem to overthrow the notion of what poetry was. Rather it seemed to constitute another as yet unfamiliar category of what poetry might be.

One thinks of certain books of the Bible, of the Song of Solomon in particular, as being somewhere and somehow behind it. And I see now that it has its own religious implications, which I imagine the audience I first heard it with (the performance was in Durham Cathedral) would either have ignored or been deeply troubled by. For it sounds post-Christian. “Perhaps even now the time has arrived,” says Whitman. “After the seas are all crossed, / After the great captains have accomplished their work, / After the noble inventors, / Finally shall come the poet worthy that name, / The true son of God shall come singing his songs.”

This prophetic style of speaking seems like a sample of what the future might hold in store. Whitman had looked to English poetry, and what he had seen was dominated by the examples of Shakespeare, Scott and Tennyson. It was beautiful, yes, but beautiful in a decadent way, for it was feudal. It exhaled “that principle of caste which we Americans have come on earth to destroy”. American poetry would be democratic, free and naive (a word Whitman used with approbation).

The traditional forms and metres of poetry do not have the power to dictate to the composer – a free spirit is always a free spirit. But they do have a very strong power of suggestion. A verse in a poem, generally speaking, comes out as a verse in a song. A rhyme in the poem tends to create a rhyme in the music, at least to the extent that it marks the end of a phrase.

Getting rid of rhyme in opera made a difference to what could be done. Lohengrin rhymes. The Ring does not, and its not rhyming (its old Germanic principle of versification, alliterative like Beowulf) is as important an aspect of its music as it is of its text. If Vaughan Williams wanted to create a symphony in which soloists and chorus were employed throughout (unlike in a beautiful passage in Mahler in which we finally arrive at a song), then it is far from clear to me what sort of poetry he could have used other than the free verse he found in Whitman. Certainly this free verse does not dictate to the composer, but once again it is strongly suggestive. It calls for, as Stephen Johnson says in his note, “a new kind of melody”. It asks for a kind of copiousness.

Whitman goes very well to music, as it happens. And he goes particularly well, it would seem, when the composer is so in love with his cadences that he sets every word naturally. Vaughan Williams never seems to want the text other than it is. The same is true of John Adams, whose The Wound-Dresser takes the latter part of a Whitman poem. Adams uses only the middle range of the soloist’s voice, and there is absolutely no attempt to “vocalise”, if that is the right word – to run away with a vowel sound, to repeat a word or chop it up. All the musical intervals within a phrase are relatively small: there is none of the bravura alternation between high and low notes (completely foreign to the intonation of the spoken voice) which makes so much modern vocal music so affected and incomprehensible. The priority has been set: it is to get the words across. Like Vaughan Williams, Adams does nothing unnatural to a single syllable, excepting once: he lets the accent fall, in a moment of agitation, on the last syllable of “offensive”.

Curious, in A Sea Symphony, to hear the words of the great individualist in the mouths of a massed choir. Curious, but not inappropriate. It reminds us that Whitman does not see himself as an individual in the normal sense, but as representative man. The poetry of The Wound-Dresser is far, far better than what Vaughan Williams chose. The singer on that recording (also put out by the BBC, in their Late Junction series) is Christopher Maltman. The soloists on A Sea Symphony are Joan Rogers and Simon Keenlyside. Exemplary voices for these exemplary settings of words.

Bernard Jacobson, Issue 28:4 (Mar/Apr 2005) of Fanfare Magazine

“…When I finally heard it, however, I was blown away (a forgivable metaphor, I hope, in the context of a work that so prominently features “the winds piping and blowing”). Answering to my hopes rather than my fears, Slatkin here seems to have gotten everything spectacularly, thrillingly, and often movingly right…”

“… Almost every recording of the symphony you may now be able to lay your hands on is enjoyable in most conductorial, orchestral, and choral respects, and the same goes for the distinguished array of soloists who have essayed the soprano and baritone parts. Again, while I stand by my enthusiasm for Spano’s team of Christine Goerke and Brett Polegato, it seems to me that Slatkin’s pairing of Joan Rodgers … and Simon Keenlyside outdistances all competition. Boult’s baritone was John Carol Case, a notable singer in his day, and one who gave me many memorable experiences when I was growing up to music in London, but he was perhaps too smooth and cultivated an artist to be quite as convincing in this work as Keenlyside, who sounds much more like someone eager to “launch out on trackless seas.” Polegato certainly commands the sheer gusto such moments call for, and he is touching in the second movement’s reverie “On the beach at night alone.” But, as the American composer Mel Powell observed years ago, in an article written when orchestras were starting to lean over backwards in the effort to incorporate “pop” elements into symphonic music, “nature is a fascist pig.” Polegato is a splendid singer, with a splendid voice and a fine technique, and he misses nothing that you might reasonably ask a baritone to get out of his part. However, half a dozen notes from Keenlyside are enough to transport the listener, or at least this one, to a different plane of imagination and high poetry. A few short months ago, I was scarcely acquainted with this English baritone; now, after equally dazzling performances as the Count in René Jacobs’s Le nozze di Figaro and in this Sea Symphony, he has acquired in my ears a supreme status among his colleagues anywhere in the world…”

“…The BBC’s live recording, produced by Ann McKay, rivals any of its predecessors for clarity, warmth, precision of tone color, and awe-inspiring power. Nevertheless, the last word should go to Leonard Slatkin. He has erased all my previous reservations with this stunning presentation of Vaughan Williams’s first large-scale masterpiece….”

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asperia July 11, 2010 at 8:10 pm

“However, half a dozen notes from Keenlyside are enough to transport the listener, or at least this one, to a different plane of imagination and high poetry. A few short months ago, I was scarcely acquainted with this English baritone; now, after equally dazzling performances as the Count in René Jacobs’s Le nozze di Figaro and in this Sea Symphony, he has acquired in my ears a supreme status among his colleagues anywhere in the world…”

Well said. I could say I have learned about Simon Keenlyside´s qualities on the 27th of March 2010 (yes, MET´s Hamlet), and I can´t help looking for his recordings:-))), my collection has grown quite big after these three months. He is currently my most favourite singer or, maybe, he shares my number one position with Jose Carreras :-)))

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