VAUGHAN WILLIAMS:  Symphony No. 1 "A Sea Symphony"
Christine Goerke, soprano; Brett Polegato, baritone; Atlanta Symphony Orchestra & Chorus/Robert Spano, cond.
TELARC CD 80588 (F) (DDD) TT:  61:08
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Having marked his accession to the Atlanta post last year with a distinctive, freshly considered Scheherazade (Telarc CD 80568), Robert Spano reverts to standard a&r practice in setting down a less familiar work. The Sea Symphony, incorporating settings of Walt Whitman poetry for soloists, chorus, and orchestra, isnít exactly obscure, but neither do we get to hear it every day.

Spano's performance is at its best in a rousing, dramatic reading of the finale, "The Explorers," a twenty-six minute cantata in its own right. He unerringly, compellingly paces the gradual buildup in the opening paragraphs. Introduced by a sweet, lyrical solo violin, the soloists set a more anxious, impulsive mood in the middle strophes, settling into a dignified invocation for solo baritone. The chorus injects a renewed uplift at "Away O soul" before the sort of long, peaceful fadeout beloved of twentieth-century British composers.

In the preceding three movements, Spano's instincts are no less musical. Some passages elicit considerable atmosphere: the overlapping stretto entries winding up the first movement suggest the multitude of ships through the ages; the low, spacious chords at the second movementís start evoke solitude. But I keenly felt the absence of an indefinable "Englishness." Boult (EMI), of course, came by this sort of thing naturally, but adoptive Britons like Previn (RCA) and Haitink (EMI), working with British orchestras, also captured it. Thus, the symphony's opening captures the right grand, surging spirit, but misses an epic, hymnlike quality; a bit later, the trim motifs introducing the baritone solo donít quite swagger. Similarly, while the third-movement scherzo hurtles forward buoyantly, it becomes unduly marziale in effect; the slashing brasses suggest Respighi, of all people.

To judge by their spirited performance here, the Atlanta players clearly enjoy working with Spano. Those brasses in the third movement, Respighian or not, are thrilling and powerful. The strings are once again this orchestra's weak point: discipline is good, phrasing is neat, but in the fuller passages they sound recessed, as if not quite sufficient in number relative to the rest of the ensemble.

Turning to the soloists, Brett Polegato provides precisely the correct British baritone timbre—as distinctive a voice type within its narrower repertoire as, say, the Verdi baritone—while infusing it, blessedly, with an added measure of technical security. His quasi-chant on single low tones in the second movement is a bit straight, and a bit flat, but elsewhere he is touching and reverent. Christine Goerke's delivery is authoritative, but sometimes excessively tremulous, and a slow, wide beat mars her final floated high note in the first movement. The two soloists together make a forthright, assertive impression in the finaleís canonic proclamations.

Chorus master Norman Mackenzie, faced with the nearly impossible task of succeeding the late, beloved Robert Shaw, does a credible job. The chorus, like the orchestra, is at its best in the finale: limpidly expressive, combining soft-edged attacks with clear definition. Earlier on, they are equally enthusiastic and disciplined; but the sopranos' light, tenuous sound up top, though refined, is a far cry from the fuller, more even Shaw sound.

Telarc's engineering is fine, but inconsistent in the brass. At the very opening, the peremptory fanfares, emerging from silence, make quite an impression; on the other hand, the triumphal fanfares heralding the second-movement recap have a hard, unpleasant edge.

S.F.V.  (August 2002)