Vaughan Williams’ First Symphony has had rather mixed fortunes on disc. In concert it can be a quite overwhelming experience, yet the excitement it can generate is not always captured in recordings.
One issue is how to capture the voices of the soloists relative to the chorus. Should the voices emerge, as it were, out of the chorus, or should they, operatically, be in the foreground? This recording has the balance right, but—at least to my taste—Elizabeth Llewellyn is a little too operatic with an occasional distracting wobble, despite beauties of tone. Her too-dramatic voice is a little at odds with the remainder of the performance. Marcus Farnsworth is on the lighter side of baritone but has splendid diction and an attractive voice.
The BBC Symphony Chorus is admirable in diction, but the recording, made in the Blackheath Halls, could be a little clearer—in parts it feels congested. Getting the balance both within and across parts just so, is inevitably affected by the acoustics of the venue, but I would have welcomed a little more clarity.
Against that, the performance itself is to be rated among the very best. Martyn Brabbins is a superb conductor in British music, and his performance—though a little slower than some—has superb forward impetus. His attention to orchestral detail is crucial, but, even more importantly, he has an architectural grasp of the shape of the whole. In a lesser performance things can become episodic, but Brabbins maintains not merely the internal coherence of the individual movements but also the relationship of each movement to the other. In an ideal world, we would be able to marry the best of the different valuable performances available – but that would be unrealistic. Vernon Handley’s recording is, I think, incomparable in overall conception, just a hint broader than Brabbins, but his soloists are not the strongest and opinions are divided about the attempt to create a natural concert-hall sound. For me the latter is a strength, but others are less certain.
The short filler, Darest thou now, O soul, is for unison chorus and strings, and, like the symphony, a setting of words by Whitman. It is an attractive piece, without rivalling some of Vaughan Williams’ greatest choral works—I am glad to have heard it.