“Behold the sea!” In one of the most impressive openings for any 20th-century symphony, Vaughan Williams announced his entry into the world of symphonic music in 1910. The work has been lucky on disc, with some 24 recordings currently in the catalogue. RVW must have been doing something right to maintain public admiration for over 100 years.

With so many versions to choose from, the listener will be hard pressed to make a choice, especially as with many big choral works of the period, satisfactory clarity of the text is rarely achieved. Of the versions I auditioned, I like the Hallé recording under Sir Mark Elder best. The diction is superior to this new one and the soloists are preferable. There is also an excellent version on EMI with the LPO under Bernard Haitink.

This version under Martyn Brabbins is a little recessed. The choral diction is not as clear as on the other two versions. The baritone soloist, Marcus Farnsworth, is very much under par, Roderick Williams and Jonathan Summers are far better. However, the great moments are there; “O thou transcendent” in the final movement is as inspiring as ever and the steady tread towards the distant horizon expresses the composer’s vision of eternity. As this is a choral work, one is prompted to ask how much vocal clarity is required for a successful performance, or is the struggle for comprehension, common in many big choral works, to be sacrificed for vocal effect, as it is here.

Composer: Vaughan Williams
Composition: A Sea Symphony
Performer: BBC Symphony Orchestra/Brabbins
Catalogue Number: Hyperion CDA68245

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