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Ralph Vaughan Williams: A London Symphony; Serenade to Music
Christopher Seaman, conducting the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra
16 singers from Mercury Opera Rochester (in Serenade to Music)

Review By Joe Milicia


  One mightn't necessarily expect a fine new recording of Ralph Vaughan Williams' London Symphony to arrive from Rochester, New York (rather than, say, Rochester, Kent), but Englishman Christopher Seaman, now Conductor Laureate of the orchestra after a 13-year tenure as Music Director, has good credentials, not only as former leader of the BBC Scottish Symphony and the (now Royal) Northern Sinfonia but as the recipient of a complimentary note from no less a Vaughan Williams expert than Sir Adrian Boult, following a BBC broadcast in 1979: "May the old Boults send a humble "bravo" for the V.W. London this morning? It was delightfully lively and right. We did enjoy it so did Ursula V.W. she has just told me on the telephone!"

The CD is all the more desirable for its outstanding sound and for the beautifully performed "filler," the original 16-solo-voices version of Vaughan Williams' Serenade to Music. An attractively moody London scene on the cover, from a Victorian painting by J.A. Grimshaw, is a bonus touch.

A London Symphony (the composer's Symphony No. 2, though not labeled as such) originated as a tone poem but was developed into a four-movement symphony under the encouragement of fellow composer George Butterworth. It was premiered in 1914, but considerably revised and abridged for publication in 1920. (Listeners might want to check out the fascinating 2001 recording of the original version on Chandos, with Richard Hickox/London Symphony.) A "definitive" edition, with relatively minor changes that include more bars cut from the slow movement and finale, was published in 1933, but Seaman uses the 1920 edition (the same as the budget Dover score printed in 1996). Boult's own 1971 recording of the 1933 version with the London Philharmonic is actually a minute longer than Seaman's, thanks to broader tempos; Seaman doesn't rush the many brooding passages of the symphony, but as Boult's letter suggests, he does keep things moving.

I very much like the orchestral panorama provided by Harmonia Mundi's engineers. The orchestra is not too far recessed, but soloists don't sound unduly spotlighted. (The recording was made in Kodak Hall of the Eastman Theatre.) The sudden triple-forte outburst following the pre-dawn reverie that opens the symphony is indeed blazing. The English horn and viola solos in the slow movement are haunting and characterful. (Vaugnan Williams once claimed that this movement evokes "Bloomsbury Square on an autumn afternoon," while Harmonia Mundi's booklet writer hears it as a visit to "the darker, quieter, lonelier side of town," with the English horn conjuring "gray skies and rain.") The brass players' sound is mellow and gold, when appropriate, but dazzlingly metallic in the climaxes. My only (minor) disappointment is in the echoes of "Big Ben," less magical than usual in this recording: Vaughan Williams uses harp and (in the first movement) clarinet to suggest the chimes in the distance, but perhaps the recording is too "laser-sharp" to cloak the sound in mystery.

However, the Serenade to Music that completes the disc doesn't suffer at all from any sense that the sound is too analytic. The orchestral introduction is surely as gorgeous as anybody could want, as the solo violin and woodwinds rise from and fall back into the orchestral mass, and the 16 vocal soloists likewise seem to be part of the instrumental texture. The brighter fanfares effectively contrast the darkly sweet nocturnal rhapsodizing: it's really hard to separate the pleasures of the performance itself from those of the sonic vividness. Vaughan Williams wrote the piece setting Shakespeare's words of praise for music and romantic nights from Act V of The Merchant of Venice in 1938 for an all-star performance at one of Sir Henry Wood's Proms Concerts, but later arranged it for various other easier-to-assemble groupings, including orchestra alone. For a truly diva/divo-laden account, check out Leonard Bernstein's live 1962 recording from the opening night of Lincoln Center's Philharmonic Hall. Seaman takes a very different approach, using local singers from Mercury Opera Rochester. Although I found the lower male voices not quite up to the job in the passage on untrustworthy men who don't appreciate music, some of the sopranos and mezzos are very fine, with especially delicate and soaring voices at the first and final solo entrances. Here indeed, "Soft stillness and the night/Become the touches of sweet harmony."





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