It looks as though Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Symphony Orchestra are embarking on recording all of VW’s symphonies; given that No 2 has already been issued in a much admired production using the main constituents of the of the above forces, this has to be a very good thing indeed.
This new version of the Sea Symphony is exceptionally good. The very first thing about the recording is the marvellous opening sequence. Admittedly it is difficult to mess this up, after all VW himself said when preparing the first performance in 1910, ‘I nearly fell off the rostrum’. The sound is so rich, full and well balanced underpinned by the exciting prominence of deep organ pedals (OK I am an organist, so I am hopelessly enthralled). Everyone unfailingly pulls together, with the chorus in fine and very precise form. I very much like Mr Brabbins' drive and his pacing of all this music. In the first movement there is a lovely soft smoothness at the haunting fugato ‘Token of all brave captains’. Later there is a moody and atmospheric ‘On the beach at night alone', a tremendously vigorous gale-strewn ‘The Waves’ (definitely not good to be aboard in this weather) and a calm and devout (in the best sense) rendering of the somewhat—dare I say it?—overlong finale.
As an indication of the care that has gone into this production the final bars’ ‘niente’ is precisely that, the pianissimo reduces to absolutely nothing, so that you cannot know exactly when the music actually stops.
I was slightly less impressed with the soloists. The soprano exhibits a somewhat wide vibrato and occasionally when under pressure she does not quite middle the note. The baritone is musical enough but lacks what I would regard as the ideal vocal heft for the part. Notwithstanding these niggles, this version of the symphony would be my number one, just, but only just, eclipsing Vernon Handley’s version, and excellent though this is, the overall quality of the present recording is the deciding factor.
There is a bonus, since the CD also includes a rarely heard Whitman setting (from 1925) for unison chorus and strings. It is only lasts 3 minutes and it is not very interesting—one for completists I feel.