VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: A Sea Symphony; Darest thou now, O soul – Elizabeth Llewellyn, soprano/ Marcus Farnsworth, baritone/ BBC Symphony Chorus/ BBC Symphony Orchestra/ Martyn Brabbins – Hyperion CDA68245, 70:53 (9/28/18) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi/PIAS] ****:

Ralph Vaughan Williams struggled for six years, 1903-1909, to complete his first symphony, which he determined would be a choral work befitting the British music tradition whose roots embrace Purcell, Handel, and Stanford. Despite his relative novelty in the medium, Vaughan Williams produced an epic conception, striking in its originality and breadth. For sheer girth, energy, and power of evocation, there are few such first symphonies to compete with it. Fond of the poetry of Walt Whitman, especially his Leaves of Grass, Vaughan Williams chose its verses for the first three movements and the poet’s “Passage to India” for the final movement. In A Song for all seas, all ships, stalwart sailors explore the vast oceans to serve as metaphors for the voyage of the soul. The interval of the third in alternate minor and major tonalities—B-flat to D—dominates the course of the spiritual journey, opening in B-flat minor with a brass fanfare that moves to D Major at the explosive word “sea.”  The immediacy of impact—the declaration to “Behold, the sea itself”—evokes the immensity and primacy of the oceans, a cosmic muscularity immediately countered by a shanty tune for the “dashing spray” and “winds piping and blowing” that humanizes the otherwise intimidating presence. Soprano Llewellyn intones verses on the soul of man that transitions into a lament for those brave sailors who have lost their lives at sea. The words, “Emblem of man elate above death,” lead the final section, involving a potent climax, “a pennant universal,” and then the primal waves of the sea abate so that calm rules once more.

Portrait, Ralph Vaughan WIlliams

Vaughan Williams, by E. O. Hoppé

Vaughan Williams creates a moving nocturne for his second movement, On the beach at night alone, that exploits C minor and E Major.  The waves lap the shoreline, Largo sostenuto, and baritone Farnsworth contemplates Man’s position in the “vast similitude” that surrounds time and space in some mysterious unity. He and the chorus combine for an intense meditation on metaphysics, with the baritone’s solo having returned and then dissipating into an orchestral epilogue that leaves us still pondering Man’s fate, that force whose “vast similitude interlocks all.”. We might wonder if Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” serves as a spiritual shipmate for these musings. The third movement, The Waves, presents a highly active, pictorial scherzo for chorus and orchestra. The fanfare motif transforms into evocations of sea and wind, Debussy’s La Mer reveling, ¾, in its mighty power. The Waves takes its inspiration from the same Sea Drift that attracted Delius. The whistling speed of the movement reflects the “myriad myriad” waves, ceaseless in their “bubbling, and gurgling. . .undulating,” in an evocation of kinetic motion akin to Poe’s The Bells and aspects of Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind.

The last movement, The Explorers, begins with a cosmic vision, “O vast Rondure, swimming in space,” as if Carl Sagan composed the poem. The hymn to the limitless heavens finds its earthy “justification” in the soul of “the poet worthy of that name,/The true son of God shall come singing his songs.” Here, we intimate Whitman’s ego travels o the same path as Scriabin, releasing his soul to explore an infinitude that reflects his own potential. Inspired by Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, Vaughan Williams builds a huge symphonic arch, culminating in a duet for soprano and baritone and chorus, moving to “Away O soul! Hoist instantly the anchor,” so that all mortal coils relinquish their hold on the exploring spirit. Conductor Brabbins holds this grandiose, half-hour movement together through its various modes and spatial modulations, built on a scale to rival Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand.  Recorded 14-15 October 2017, the performance projects warmth as well as majesty, all courtesy of Recording Producer Andrew Keener.

Darest thou now, O soul (1906-07) combines unison chorus and strings, set to Book XXX of Leaves of Grass, and profiting in its choral dynamics from Vaughan Williams’ extensive work on The English Hymnal. The expansive sentiment, once more, parallels the late sonatas of Scriabin, seeking the soul’s release to engage infinite, unknown possibilities. “…we burst forth, we float,/In Time and Space, prepared for them,/Equal, equipt at last…” The musical texture crosses Brahms and Faure for warm cooperation between chorus and strings, an intimate if cosmically aspiring sentiment in just over three minutes.

—Gary Lemco