You know how it is. At an early point in each person’s discovery of classical music we hear a work that strikes us pretty forcibly as being one to which we instinctively respond, such an experience setting off a personal voyage of discovery of the particular composer’s music – only for us to be brought up short when we encounter other works by the same creator that don’t have a similar appeal: is it me or is it the composer? Have we, if we’re honest, got hold of the wrong end of the stick, or has the conductor?
Many years ago, very early in my musical life, I was knocked sideways by a number of works by Ralph Vaughan Williams, with the result that my enthusiasm led me to investigate as much of his music as I could – and there were many opportunities to do so.
But I found myself puzzled by several of what were regarded as being amongst his finest works: they simply didn’t have quite the same impact as, say, those earlier enthusiasms brought about by the Fourth Symphony (in the composer’s recording) or the Tallis Fantasia, or the Tuba Concerto – and some of those unknown pieces have remained a partially-opened book ever since.
Was it me? Probably. As a teenager, I tended to blame him for not consistently being what I wanted him to be, but (without this review turning into a chapter of autobiography) a number of revelatory performances over the years have caused me to realise that Vaughan Williams’s genius was much more wide-ranging than the handful of masterpieces which had first fired my enthusiasms led me to believe.
The one major work that consistently eluded me was the Walt Whitman-inspired A Sea Symphony (perhaps stemming from the first time I ever heard it, a live performance under Donald Cashmore – a disappointing account indeed, I was later assured), and that uncertainty has remained with me – up to now.
Not that I ever gave up on A Sea Symphony: my later experience drew me back, time and again, to the work, but it has been hearing this recording under Sir Mark Elder that has, for the first time in my life, utterly convinced me of the work’s greatness.
This account has also vividly brought home to me the period in which it was written – during the first decade of the 20th-century – that is to say, before World War One, before The Rite of Spring, Pierrot Lunaire or Daphnis et Chloé, and broadly contemporaneous with Delius’s A Mass of Life, Elgar’s The Apostles, Mahler 8 and Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder: in many ways, in concept, A Sea Symphony has to be approached and performed with a profound understanding of its place in the musical ethos of its time and especially Britain’s evolving musical art.
As with those other large-scale magnum opuses, each of which poses similar interpretative problems, the solution to a successful realisation lies in the bringing together of the inevitable changes of tempos within broad structures – holding long stretches of music together, not losing the listener’s interest, but ensuring the continuation and development of the work’s expressive thread.
I now know that virtually every reading I have ever heard of A Sea Symphony has, in some material way or another, failed to make the work cohere overall – which I regard as being absolutely essential in terms of symphonic interpretation: it is not a Cantata but a Symphony, demanding a conductor whose grasp of that essential, indeed profound, feature has to be total.
With this Hallé recording conducted by Mark Elder, it has now found that person. I may not have always shared the opinions of colleagues and of many music-lovers regarding the totality of this work, but I have known the music in detail for many years, and as page after page of this extraordinarily original score unfolded, Elder held my attention throughout, a concentration that over the 70 minutes’ duration, gradually – and thrillingly – caused me to realise what I had been missing all these years: the direction of a great conductor, fully in tune with every aspect of the music and which has finally convinced me that A Sea Symphony is Vaughan Williams’s first 24-carat masterpiece.
In this whole Elder has a number of outstanding collaborators: the Hallé of course and two exceptional soloists, finely matched, of whom Roderick Williams delivers the most rounded and musically expressive account of the baritone part I have heard, every word dead in tune and crystal-clear in enunciation. Quite apart from those qualities, Williams’s grasp of the musical nature of the work is total. Katherine Broderick is equally impressive, and the combined choral forces are of exceptional quality as is the recording balance, which is well-judged throughout.
The result is a release that should be in every collection of British music: it is a triumph. The booklet includes Whitman’s texts.