Superb Performance and Recording of a Great Work
J. Poss | Pahrump, Nevada | 04/12/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Vaughan Williams "A Sea Symphony" is one of the greatest and most inspiring works of the 20th century, with excepts from Walt Whitman's masterpiece, "Leaves of Grass". No other work better captures the majesty and beauty of the Sea. Here we have, if I'm not mistaken, the first live recording ever produced by Chandos and the audience is extremely quite to the point of not even knowing they are their. This is a very complex work to perform and record with it's extremely large forces. Richard Hickox does an amazing job at handling all the forces involved. The chorus sounds sumptuous yet precise and the sections are very well defined across the front stereo spread. The balance between chorus and orchestra is almost perfect. Gerald Finley does a superb job with just the right emotional inflections with his dark voluptuous baritone voice. The surround sound places him right of center in front of the orchestra and Susan Gritton left of center. Susan Gritton is not quite as strong or beautifully voiced as Gerald but she still sounds great. The eeb and flow that Hickox creates is wonderful. Overall the ambiance in the Barbican Centre where this performance took place is very good with a perfect 2 second decay time. What also impressed me about this recording were the subtleties and nuances of phrasing during the quiet passages such as "And all that went down doing their duty" in the first movement and "Wherefore, unsatisfied soul? Whither O mocking life?" in the last movement are very moving. The overture to "The Wasps" is a great opening and played with aplumb.
Two caveats; the timpani tends to get muddy and lacks definition. Listen to Leonard Slatkin's performance of this work for RCA for excellent timpani sound and the second caveat is the organ is barely audible. Chandos own recording from 1989 with Bryden Thompson conducting has more audible organ.
Also impressive is the dynamic range of this Hickox performance. It is extreme and adds greatly to the high drama of this work. I found that I had to listen to this with the volume turned higher them normal to get the right level for the soft passages. But the load passages did not irritate my ears like a normal CD (Red Book). Oh, I did listen to the regular CD layer as well and it sounds very good indeed but lacks the dynamic range and subtleties of the SACD stereo layer and of course the 3 dimensionality of the SACD 5 channel layer. If you don't have one already, you really must get an SACD player to really hear the natural beauty of the SACD format. The timbre of the instruments is particularly revealed in SACD. Also you will notice that your ears to not get fatigued which happens when listeing to regular CDs.
Some short remarks about past recordings: The old standard has always been Sir Adrian Boult's 1968 recording done in Kingsway Hall (renowned for it's great acoustics but was torn down in the early 1980's). Unfortunately, that old recording shows very dead acoustics and lacks details compared to this new recording by Hickox. Listen to the opening fanfare of the Boult recording and listen to the reverberation decay time, it's almost none existent. This new Hickox recording is warm and sumptuous with a nice 2 second reverberation decay time from the Barbican hall. Leonard Slatkin's recording done in Abby Road Studio 1 is actually very good as well. But the strongest competition comes from Chandos own catalog with, not surprisingly, the same forces, The London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus but this time conducted by Bryden Thompson and different soloists recorded in the spacious acoustics of St. Judes Church, Central Square, London, but its lack of detail shows compared to this new recording. I wish Chandos would have recorded this new Hickox performance at St. Judes Church, Central Square, London or Chandos other favorite venue, All Saints Church, Tooting. With the added detail of SACD I think it would have been truely great.
All in all this new recording by Hickox is the current best. And I find that I'm listening to the Hickox recording again and again and not getting tired of it. It is so beautiful. I give it 4.6 stars (had to round up to 5), not a perfect score due to the 2 caveats mentioned earlier."
J R Sound Police | California | 06/20/2008
(2 out of 5 stars)
"The Chandos Hickox Vaughan Williams cycle is one the best available. The performances and the recording quality are excellent. Most would rate 5+ stars.
This recording is a mastered at such a low volume, I would tend to believe that there has been some kind of mistake. You really need to crank up the amps in order to hear much of the performance. This even applies to some passages that are not even supposed to be quiet. I have listened to both the SACD and CD layers on state of the art equipment and find the sound level to be inferior for both formats.
Après ce-ci le déluge
Steen Mencke | Denmark | 02/21/2010
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I have to admit that I have not always seen eye to eye with this late lamented conductor. In many of his recordings of the foreign repertoire I felt he often navigated the corners a bit too fast with insufficient regard for the native colours (de mortuis nihil nisi bene ... and all that, I apologize), but among his compatriots he almost invariably swam like a fish, and with Vaughan Williams he arguably made his greatest kills. The universally commended recording of the second symphony was in several ways one of a kind, and the outings into the world of the rarely heard stageworks always brought many a thrill. Having for years enjoyed Hickox's early disc of the "Sea Symphony" (1990, Virgin) I had high hopes for this issue, and much to everybody's praise I was not disappointed for a second during 4577 seconds of exquisite playing.
Every detail of an often awkward score is there in its best possible light, every shade of beauty and emotion drawn from Whitman's ebullient texts by an excellent singer duo, perhaps the best I have encountered since Roocroft/Hampson gave it their all for Sir Andrew Davis a decade and a half ago. The largo has an almost icy beauty that outdoes all competition, but the acid test for any recording of VW's first, to me, is the swell of the orchestra in the finale to the words: "O Thou transcendent"; if total inundation does not immediately follow I, for one, am not amused. Hickox builds up the climax to perfection, and though the live recording may restrict the orchestra sound a bit the effect is still colossal, and unlike the above mentioned Davis recording Hickox's soloists are not mared by a strange boxed-in sound that is the probable result of them being recorded in a separate - and somewhat smaller - room from the orchestra. All in all, unlike my co-reviewer Mr. J R Sound Police, I find the recorded sound to be very adequate, in places positively impressive, and it certainly does not distract from the overall joy of a thoroughly inspired performance, right at the top of my list next to Boult and Sir Andrew Davis. Haitink's version, deeply felt though it is, is too lumbering according to my taste.
The ouverture to "The Wasps" is as witty and eloquent as the author of the play, and the interpretation only enforces the general impression of the greatest care and dedication. Enthusiastically recommended."