John Alexander
Classical Source
September 2018

This Hyperion release contains the greatest performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Sea Symphony I have ever heard, live or recorded, an account comprehensively impressive on every level. For those unfamiliar with it, A Sea Symphony is a four-movement, fully choral work, here close on seventy minutes in duration. That alone should prepare listeners for what they are to hear in terms of attention-span, which applies as much to performers as it does to the audience.

In particular, to the conductor. A work which opens with an expansive first movement and concludes with a half-hour Finale presents, in terms of structural cohesion, challenges identical to a Bruckner or Mahler Symphony—for example, contemporaneous with the Vaughan Williams is ‘Der Abschied’ from Das Lied von der Erde.

A Sea Symphony treads its own paths, and in those vast enveloping movements the conductor can so readily be dissuaded from the overall scope so as to concentrate upon incidental beauties. So many have fallen into this trap that the reputation of Sea Symphony has come to rest more on the composer’s subsequent masterworks than an appreciation of just what a colossal achievement this Walt Whitman setting is (the text included in the booklet).

It’s not ‘young man’s music’ either: Vaughan Williams was thirty-eight when he conducted the premiere at the Leeds Festival in 1910. This work and the Tallis Fantasia (also premiered that year) announced the comprehensive arrival of a major composer.

It would be futile to enumerate the challenges that Sea Symphony poses, but what is so extraordinary about Martyn Brabbins’s account is how he holds the various changes within those vast outer movements together without in any way sacrificing any aspect, a remarkable achievement of interpretative musicianship.

It is also inspirational for the performers. Elizabeth Llewellyn is outstanding, movingly lyrical and expressive when called for and positively thrilling at her great entrance 'Token of all brave captains', which has the electrifying impact the music demands—without in any way disturbing the underlying flow. The BBC Symphony Chorus is positively inspired here—I have never heard the opening so attention-grabbing, fully combined with the orchestral tapestry which envelopes it. You’ll want to play this passage again and again—this is how this very difficult opening should be performed, but hardly ever is.

Marcus Farnsworth is equally splendid; in an intensely musical way his part forms a natural thread within the fabric, so right for this music. Throughout, he is the epitome of finely sympathetic interpretation, from his first entry to blending with the choir at those passages which demand it.

The BBC Symphony Chorus is, on this showing, one of the finest such ensembles—its sensitivity in the slow movement is superb in terms of tonal gradation and expressive depth; in the Scherzo, the singing is virtuosic in partnership with the BBCSO, here showing what a great orchestra it can be.

Throughout, Brabbins is inspiring and profoundly insightful, and any lover of Vaughan Williams’s music must add this disc to their collection, even if it already boasts Boult (twice), Elder, Leonard Slatkin, Andrew Davis, Previn, Haitink and Handley, and the sound quality is well-nigh perfect, the balance and depth within the generous acoustic quite magnificent in terms of clarity and impact.

The fascinating filler, Vaughan Williams’s 1925 setting of further Whitman, ‘Darest thou now, O soul’, for unison chorus and strings, is a further demonstration of this composer’s genius, the creator of music that has outlived the worthlessness of passing fashions.