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Vaughan Williams: A Sea Symphony; Serenade to Music

MDR Symphony Orchestra; MDR Radio Choir/Dennis Russell Davies et al (Solo Musica)

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

Vaughan Williams
A Sea Symphony (Symphony No. 1)*; Serenade to Music
*Eleanor Lyons, Joanne Marie D’Mello (soprano), Michelle Neupert (alto), Yongkeun Kim (tenor), *Christopher Maltman (baritone), Alexander Knight (bass); MDR Symphony Orchestra; MDR Radio Choir/Dennis Russell Davies
Solo Musica SM415   86:58 mins (2 discs)


The Leipzig-based MDR-Sinfonieorchester has recorded Vaughan Williams’s A Sea Symphony before, a live performance from 2007. This new version is also live, and is thrillingly responsive to VW’s epic Whitman setting.

The gleaming brass fanfare at the symphony’s opening is boldly arresting, announcing a swirlingly evocative account of the imposing opening paragraph. Conductor Dennis Russell Davies favours a generally broad approach to the movement, emphasising the grandeur of VW’s conception without de-energising the music. The Leipzig choir is excellent, and its articulate response to Whitman’s poetry betokens careful preparation under the young English chorus master Harry Bradford. ‘On the beach at night alone’ benefits from Christopher Maltman’s seasoned baritone, his probing introspection occasionally compromised by wide vibrato. Russell Davies again impresses, eliciting appropriately dark-hued playing from the strings in particular. Some odd balances slightly skew the sound – an arching cello line obtrudes at one point, and VW’s misterioso choral writing is a touch recessive. The Scherzo (‘The Waves’) is excitingly spray-tossed without becoming frantic, enabling the choir to sustain clarity of diction. In ‘The Explorers’ finale, Russell Davies is daringly expansive, catching impressively the visionary quality of Whitman’s words and Vaughan Williams’s movingly empathetic music.

A warmly affectionate studio recording of Serenade to Music, in the version for choir and four soloists, is included on a bonus disc. But it’s Russell Davies’s distinctive, richly enjoyable Sea Symphony that truly demands attention. It is rewardingly insightful, and VW enthusiasts will want to hear it.


Terry Blain