Review by jeff3948 May 17, 2013 (10 of 11 found this review helpful)
|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. Although not perfect, overall the ambiance and reverberation in the Barbican Centre where this performance took place is good with an nice 1.5 second reverberation decay time. What really 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. Oh, I did listen to the regular CD layer as well and it sounds very good indeed but lacks the 3 dimensionality of the SACD 5 channel sound.
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 1.5 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, which would have added more reverberation and space. I'm sure Chandos could have overcome the lack of detail in the Bryden Thompson recording.
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 and grandiose. I give it 4.6 stars, not a perfect score due to the 2 caveats mentioned earlier.
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