After picking up Noi and getting home I found time to sit and really listen to Vaughn Williams's A Sea Symphony. The last time I went to HMV I shelled out for a box set of the symphonies, conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. The set is part of Decca's British Music Collection (I love the packaging - very British design) which has a number of gems in it. When I bought it I thought it was the set recorded from 1968 - 70 which I used to own on vinyl. (In fact, I still own the records, but there's nothing to play them on, even if they were playable, which I doubt.) These were the versions I first heard when I fell in love with the music of VW so I was a bit disappointed when I realised the Decca set is a lot earlier, being recorded around 1957 - 58, in mono. However, my disappointment evaporated when I started dipping into them. Boult's readings of the symphonies have something special, sort of definitive about them. There a kind of rawness to the sound I like, especially the brass, almost as if you can hear the elements of the music being assembled.
But I've not really been able to sit and listen to a full symphony for the last few weeks. Our CD player is now extremely old and cranky and tends to skip tracks on CDs it doesn't like, and it doesn't like these. So I've sort of been dipping in to a movement here and there or just had the CDs on as background (sinful, I know.) I've decided this isn't even close to being good enough and full attention must now be devoted to what must surely be one of the great symphonic series of the last century.
A Sea Symphony is probably my least favourite of the bunch, though there are moments I love, like the gorgeous swirling melody for the strings early in the first movement after the brassy Behold the sea! Generally the piece seems to be looking backward to a Germanic tradition of oratorio which sounds heavy if not downright clunky. And though I can understand how and why Whitman's poetry appealed to VW it doesn't have the same appeal for me, being a bit too earnest and questing and soul stirring. But eventually the sheer generous expansiveness of the music wins out.
He was in his late thirties when the symphony was written, by the way. Nothing of the infant prodigy about this. I think you can sense that in the music of all the symphonies. These are the products of a hard fought maturity.