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Thread: Need rec. for Vaughan Williams Sea Symphony (#1)

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    Default Need rec. for Vaughan Williams Sea Symphony (#1)

    I'm an old fan of Vaughan Williams and have been getting interested in Whitman, so I listened to the Sea Symphony, one of RVW's works that I never knew, in Boult's 1968 recording. For any vocal work, I need a libretto to follow the words, but normally I can match what I hear with what I see on the page. With this recording, I only occasionally hear a couple of words that I can match with the printed words. Some whole tracks, such as the 3rd movement Scherzo had a total of zero matches, even after two attempts. There are several possible problems such as distant miking and my own limitations, but it appears that RVW set the words in a complex way, with odd distribution of syllables, and different words being sung simultaneously by different sections (as in an operatic ensemble piece, but for chorus). So I'd appreciate suggestions for a good modern performance in which the words are a little intelligible, at least to someone with a printed libretto. I assume that my Boult version is already as authentic to RVW's style as I can get, so choral clarity should take priority. Thanks for help.

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    Senior Member Robert Pickett's Avatar
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    Hi, Chris. I am probably the worst person to make any sort of recommendation on this work, which is my least favourite of the Vaughan Williams symphonies!

    But I'll have a go. This is a big work, and I suppose with a big choir, distant miking is probably the norm? I'd not rush in and blame your own limitations! And yes, I reckon the choral writing is pretty complex, which won't help with clarity.

    The best recordings I can think of that are modern, and yeah, clearer sounding than Boult (who is brilliant with RVW) would be the Vernon Handley recording on EMI, or a surprise source, Bernard Haitink, also on EMI. The quality of singing on both is excellent, and less recessed than Boult, even if neither has chamber intimacy and thus clarity.

    Both come in complete cycles, remarkable value in each case, especially Handley, who delivers nine knock-out performances of the Symphonies. Haitink is very good, but a couple of symphonies are less successful in his hands.
    Last edited by Robert Pickett; Jun-04-2018 at 22:12.

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    This recording by Spano and the Atlanta orchestra is dramatic and the chorus and soloists sing clearly Whitman's text. Spano asked the orchestra and chorus what work the would like to perform/record and they voted for the RVW's Sea Symphony.

    Last edited by Alfacharger; Jun-04-2018 at 23:44.

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    Thanks for these suggestions. I found all but the Spano on YouTube. One video "edition" of the Haitink shows the score, line by line, which confirms my sense that the chorus is made to do intricate things that make the text unintelligible. Since Vaughan Williams was a Whitman devotee and normally excelled in making music communicate effectively, I'm surprised he failed to realize that this setting misses any chance for the text to be understood.

    Here's a suggestion about a century late: someone could modify the score to keep just one continuous vocal/text line (harmonized), and rewrite contrapuntal vocal lines for instruments where needed for the musical content.

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