Martyn Brabbins / BBC Symphony Orchestra

Vaughan Williams: A Sea Symphony

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One of Ralph Vaughan Williams' most enduring scores, A Sea Symphony is usually credited with inspiring the English symphonic tradition of the 20th century, and recordings of it are plentiful today, an improvement over the time when Adrian Boult's classic 1953 Decca LP was the only commercially available version. For this 2018 Hyperion release, Martyn Brabbins leads the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in a sonorous and surprisingly transparent performance that largely succeeds. Soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn delivers ecstatic passages in the outer movements with secure presence, though Marcus Farnsworth has a rather light baritone voice that is no match for the combined forces of the chorus and orchestra; yet he is well-suited to the softer second movement, On the Beach at Night Alone. The BBC Symphony Chorus is a solid mainstay of this performance, delivering Walt Whitman's visionary poetry with a mix of hushed awe and bold declamation, as befits the texts. The choral scherzo, The Waves, is particularly exciting, thanks to the group's crisp diction and vigorous syncopations. But the richness of the orchestral playing is the real treat for listeners who know the symphony well, and they will luxuriate in the wonderful tone colors and vibrant textures Brabbins draws out of the ensemble. A filler work, Darest Thou Now, O Soul, on another Whitman poem, is a setting for unison chorus and strings that continues the spiritual reflections of the symphony's finale, The Explorers, though its modest hymn-like treatment shares little of the symphony's cosmic grandeur. Highly recommended.

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