Vaughan Williams’ First Symphony is a vast tapestry, setting Walt Whitman poetry about the sea. It was written between 1903 and 1909, two years of which the composer spent studying orchestration in Paris with Ravel. It incorporates French colour into the grand 19th-century English choral tradition, adding a hint of British folksong in the form of hornpipes and modal melodies.

Andrew Manze’s new recording has all the positive attributes of its predecessors: clarity and careful balancing of orchestral forces, beautiful solo playing and clean recording. Listen to how lovingly he shapes the symphony’s coda. Similar melting moments occur in the slow movement, while the Scherzo has plenty of pep. But is this enough? One essential this performance lacks is the sweep to drive this hybrid symphony in the first and last movements – something that occurs effortlessly in long-established readings by Boult and Previn. Compared to those, or to the knockout Telarc recording with Robert Spano, Manze’s Liverpudlian choir sounds less dynamic and further away. They make insufficient impact in a work where impact matters. The soloists also disappoint: Mark Stone pushes at forte and lacks gravitas, while Sarah Fox’s fluttery vibrato blends uneasily with the choir.

However, violinist James Ehnes’ playing in The Lark Ascending is absolutely exquisite, and the orchestra shines in both works.

Composer: Vaughan Williams
Composition: A Sea Symphony, The Lark Ascending
Performer: Royal Liverpool PO/Manze
Catalogue Number: ONYX ONYX4185

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