VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: A London Symphony (Symphony No. 2 in G Major); Serenade to Music (original version) – Singers from Mercury Opera Rochester / Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra / Christopher Seaman – Harmonia mundi USA multichannel SACD, HMU 807567, 55:26 ****1/2:
It would seem very limiting, not to say petty, for anyone, including record producers, to say that orchestras outside of England can’t do justice to quintessentially English music—or, to be fair, that orchestras outside of America can’t do justice to the likes of Gershwin and Bernstein. That said, the tide seems to be from this side of the pond to the other; maybe this is just good accounting sense since recording in America has always been a costly proposition. I guess that kind of sense doesn’t extend to Canada: I just reviewed a very fine recording of Vaughan Williams’ Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5 by the Toronto Symphony on TSO Live. Oh, but then there’s the superb SACD recording by the Oregon Symphony (PentaTone) of the Symphony No. 4 on an album entitled “Music for a Time of War.”
However, looking over the list of available recordings of the composer’s popular A London Symphony, I note that only the present one was recorded outside the British Isles. So I commend Harmonia mundi USA for taking a flier on the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra in Vaughan Williams. As it turns out, the producers didn’t take a very great gamble in commemorating Christopher Seaman’s thirteenth and final season with the orchestra; the City Newspaper rightly hailed the concert performances of these works, and the backing of donors, including “an anonymous appreciative listener,” made this worthy recording possible.
It’s incredible to read that Vaughan Williams’ most-popular and most-performed symphony almost didn’t survive World War I. Following the premiere in 1914, VW couldn’t interest an English publisher in the work, so he turned to Germany, sending the manuscript off without benefit of a Xerox backup copy, obviously. War broke out, and the manuscript sank from sight forever. Fortunately, it was restored from orchestral parts used at the first performance.
The symphony celebrates the verve and spirit of London, but a darkness broods over the work like a specter of the approaching holocaust about to consume Europe. The work starts in the dark, before sunrise, heralded by the ringing of Big Ben, whose chimes are heard in the quiet epilogue of the work as well. The bustling first movement is followed by a slow movement of dark brooding and melancholy, while the lively third movement, a nocturne picturing London’s nightlife, dissolves in a kind of perplexed haze that foretells the agitation of the mostly minor-key finale, with its stern march that could almost be a funeral march. Given these parameters, the symphony can stand up to a charged, dramatic reading such as we have here. Both the first and last movements burst with energy, though of mostly very different kinds. The Rochester Philharmonic proves that the New York and Buffalo Philharmonics aren’t the only recording-worthy orchestras in the state. The Rochester Phil plays with accuracy, with passion, with real beauty of sound. I hope music lovers on the other side of the pond will agree.
As to the Serenade for Music, written in 1933 to celebrate fifty years on the podium for Sir Henry Wood, it was composed with specific singers in mind— ones who worked closely with Wood and the Promenade Concerts that he founded. Since it’s sometimes hard to scare up sixteen vocal soloists, VW later scored the work alternatively for chorus, solo violin, and orchestra, but fine recordings of the original version have been set down, including a legendary one by Adrian Boult and the London Philharmonic with some of the most celebrated English singers of the day: Ian Partridge, Christopher Keyte, Norma Burrowes, and Sheila Armstrong. This version is still available on EMI, and there’s at least one laudable version from America featuring the Atlanta Symphony under Robert Spano (Telarc).
The new one from Rochester is gorgeous in the orchestral department and mostly fine in the vocal department as well, though Christopher Seaman doesn’t have a team of singers like Boult’s. Also, while the recording balance is very truthful here, with the soloists on the same plane as the orchestra without any close miking, the less powerful singers do tend to get swamped by the orchestra in the louder passages. This is not quite as successful a performance as Spano’s lovely one from Atlanta, but it’s pretty close. And in tandem with the powerful performance of A London Symphony (Spano offers the far more sedate Symphony No. 5), plus big, wide, and handsome SACD sound, this new recording has a great deal to offer. Recommended!
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