Vaughan Williams
A Sea Symphony (Symphony No.1)
Christine Goerke (soprano)
Brett Polegato (baritone)

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
Robert Spano

Recorded 10-11 November 2001 in Symphony Hall, Woodruff Arts Center, Atlanta, Georgia
CD No: TELARC CD-80588
Duration: 61 minutes
Reviewed: November 2002
Robert Spano writes in the CD booklet that the suggestion to perform A Sea Symphony came from members of the chorus. Although taken up by several non-English conductors (most notably Haitink, Previn and Slatkin), performances outside the UK are a rare event, so it is particularly pleasing to welcome a new recording, and a very good one at that, from all-American forces in music setting words by the American poet Walt Whitman.
Robert Shaw, no less, founded the Atlanta Symphony Chorus and so one would expect a strong contribution – it certainly does not disappoint, singing with full-throated vigour and sweeping grandeur, with wonderfully clear diction and giving the indication of enjoying every minute – ’director of choruses’ Norman Mackenzie is obviously keeping up Shaw’s notable standards.
Spano judges the opening fanfare, and all-important silence, perfectly, the full chorus and orchestra impressively surge the music forward, before the jaunty sea-shanty at the words "Today a brief recitative…" marking the first entrance of baritone Brett Polegato. He has powerful presence and lots of character – he injects wit, pathos, serenity and heroism into his voice and retains his beautifully controlled line. I was less taken with Christine Goerke – there’s not a great variety to her tone and she has the tendency to shriek in high registers and loud dynamics.
Arguably the most memorable part of the work is the second movement, the nocturnal and contemplative "On the beach at night, alone". Spano and his forces achieve a rapt, atmospheric stillness, which acts as an effective contrast to the energetic scherzo – “The Waves” – the chorus is particularly effective here spitting out the text with gusto over the hyperactive orchestra. Spano swings the ’trio’ melody both broadly and with an Elgarian swagger.
The lengthy last movement (’The Explorers’) begins in quiet wonder – “O vast Rondure, swimming in space" – sung beautifully by the chorus. Spano builds the movement most effectively – he clearly understands this music and one hopes that he might be tempted to explore the later symphonies – I am sure he would give a wonderful account of the much underrated No.9 for example. Towards the close, after one final vigorous sea-shanty the music becomes calm again – Spano brings this monumental and at times rather unwieldy but ultimately effecting work to a luminous and finely controlled conclusion. Full texts and adequate notes are included in this vividly recorded, warmly recommended release.

 

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