Vaughan Williams: Symphonies Nos. 7 "Sinfonia Antartica" & 9 (CD Review)

Andrew Manze, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Onyx 4190.

By Karl W. Nehring

I was happily surprised recently to find this new CD release containing the generous pairing (more than 83 minutes!) of these two symphonies by one of my favorite composers, Ralph Vaughan Williams. Having auditioned a couple of previous releases in British conductor Andrew Manze's ongoing Vaughan Williams cycle, I was eager to give this new release an audition. 

In 1947, Vaughan Williams composed music for the film Scott of the Antarctic, which portrayed the ill-fated South Pole expedition of Royal Navy officer Captain Robert Scott, whose quest to lead the first party to reach the South Pole was beaten buy a month by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen's expedition. On their way back from the Pole in 1912, Scott and all four other members of his party met their frozen deaths. Intrigued by the story and satisfied with the music he had composed for the film, Vaughan Williams set the score aside with the idea of composing a symphony based upon some of the themes. It took him a while to get to it, not starting work on the symphony until 1949, and it took him a while to finish it, finally completing his seventh full symphony in the latter part of 1952. Although the music can stand on its own independent from the story of the ill-fated polar expedition, the title that the composer gave to this work certainly invites the listener to contemplate that frozen continent; moreover, the literary quotations attached to the movements clearly evoke thoughts the tragic story.   

My wife and I have long had a musical custom that involves the "Sinfonia Antartica" (yes, that is the correct spelling – the composer titled this symphony in Italian). On that first fall day on Ohio when a big cold front moves in and a blast of frigid air lets us know that winter is on its inevitable way, we play it. On especially cold winter days when the snow is piling up, we often play it. And on especially hot summer days, we often play it.

Of course, we play it at other non-weather-related times, too, simply because it is a grand and stirring composition full of spectacular sounds. The large orchestra is augmented by an organ, a wordless three-woman mini-choir, a wordless soprano (Rowan Pierce), gong, bells, glockenspiel, xylophone, piano, celesta, and last but not least, a wind machine. In addition, literary quotations meant to be spoken aloud (on this recording by Timothy West) have been attached to each of the five movements. Many recordings omit them, some recordings (with the advent of programmable digital media such as the CD) include them bunched together so that you can do with them what you will, but this Onyx recording has put them at the beginning of each movement. I did not think I would like this when I first obtained this disc, but can report that I have enjoyed it, and have preceded my comments below about each movement with its appropriate quotation.

Andrew Manze
Prelude:Andante maestoso – "To suffer woes which hope thinks infinite,/ To forgive wrongs darker than death or night,/ To defy power which seems omnipotent,/ ... / Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent:/ This ... is to be/ Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free,/ This is alone Life, Joy, Empire and Victory." (from Shelley, Prometheus Unbound). This movement establishes the feeling of challenging the cold and desolation of the frozen expanse. Opening with a stately theme, the orchestral forces project a sense of grandeur, while the voices and wind machine that come in later in the movement offer a sense of desolation and fear. The listener cannot help but contemplate the cold and vastness of the Antarctic. The powerful sounds so well captured by the engineering team recording, from the tinkling of the percussion to the Telarc-like bass drum will provide a test for your system and a feast for your ears and imagination. The movement ends with a kind of fanfare and drum roll.

Scherzo:Moderato – "There go the ships, and there is that Leviathan whom thou hast made to take his pastime therein. " (Psalm 104, Verse 26). This lively movement produces a feeling of restless motion as themes are presented by various sections of the orchestra. Brass, percussion, strings, and woodwinds all get an opportunity to add to the energy.

Landscape:Lento — Ye ice falls! Ye that from the mountain's brow/ Adown enormous ravines slope amain—/ Torrents, methinks, that heard a mighty voice,/ And stopped at once amid their maddest plunge!/ Motionless torrents! Silent cataracts!" (from Coleridge, Hymn before Sunrise, in the vale of Chamouni). This central movement of the symphony projects a sense of vastness and danger even at it provides a severe test of the ability of your audio system to play cleanly with power and authority. The movement starts slowly but soon begins to bloom with powerful organ notes providing a bass foundation for the orchestra above. There is a feeling of brooding, of fear, of the sheer immensity of the Arctic landscape.

Intermezzo:Andante sostenuto — "Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime,/ Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time." (from Donne, The Sun Rising). This quote is spoken over some lingering notes from the orchestra as the third movement slides directly into the fourth as specified by the composer. Like the second movement, this fourth movement evokes a feeling of restlessness, but at a slower pace. What had been a restlessness born of eagerness in the second movement has been humbled by the immensity of the hostile landscape of the third movement, and we now sense the restlessness of our explorers contemplating defeat and impending doom. Rather than the huge chords of the earlier movements, the orchestration in this movement focuses somewhat more on solo instruments and smaller forces. 

Epilogue:Alla marcia, moderato (non troppo allegro) — "I do not regret this journey; we took risks, we knew we took them, things have come out against us, therefore we have no cause for complaint." (from Captain Scott's Last Journal). The final movement begins with a drum roll and brass fanfare. Does this signify a final sense of nobility, or rather a false bravado in the face of defeat and death? As the movement unfolds, we hear the wind machine and chorus, echoes of the symphony's opening theme (dreamlike remembrance of what seemed at the outset to be a noble quest?), and then the soprano, chorus, and wind machine as the symphony and quest fade to the end.

The composer's final symphony, the Ninth (hmmm…) is a wonderful work that seems to be largely overlooked, at least here in the United States. Some years back, for example, I got a phone call out of the blue from some fellow who had obtained my unlisted home phone number (yes, I am old). At some point in the conversation he asked me about Vaughan Williams. Which of RVW's symphonies were my favorites? "Well, let's see," I replied, "I like the Ninth…," but before I could get in another word, he came back with an exasperated-sounding, "the NINTH? Really? What about the Fifth? The NINTH??" Well… Truth be told, the RVW Fifth is my favorite of his nine symphonies. In fact, it is one of my favorite symphonies, period. But his Ninth is pretty darn good, too, and Manze and the RLPO deliver a fine performance.

The first time I ever heard the Ninth was by way of an Everest LP (remember Everest? 35mm tape technology, a real step forward sonically, but then subverted by mediocre pressings, not to mention their often laughable cover art) with Sir Adrian Boult conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra that I purchased back in 1976 or so. This was the very first recording of this work, and Vaughan Williams was to be on hand for this auspicious occasion. Sadly, he passed away just hours before the session. The LP opened with Sir Adrian informing the orchestra of the composer's death.

An interesting feature of the Ninth is the saxophone trio that RVW added to the orchestra, resulting in a sonority that you do not often hear in symphonic music. And no, the effect is not at all jazz-like. Very interesting!

The opening movement reminds me somewhat of the Seventh, with some themes sounding similar in feeling. The second movement, which opens with a flugelhorn solo (this apparently caused some eyebrows to raise when the work was new), brings in an element of mystery, perhaps even a sense of danger, especially near the end. The third movement is more jaunty and bouncy, with the saxophones and percussion section getting a chance to have some fun, the movement ending with a drum roll on the snares. The final movement starts with the strings and then gives all the various parts of the orchestra time in the spotlight, with some especially poignant sounds from the saxophones near the end. The music is complex but flowing, showing Vaughan Williams to be still at the height of his compositional powers even late in his long life.

Overall, this is a truly fine release. Manze's way with these symphonies is right up there with the very best. For the Seventh, my favorite has long been Handley on EMI, and I have enjoyed Bakels on Naxos (spectacular sound, but the conducting seemed to be a bit overly dramatic at times) and Boult on EMI/Angel. In the Ninth, I have enjoyed the Haitink on Warner Classics and the Slatkin on RCA. Both performances – and the attendant sound quality – on this new Manze release on Onyx stand right up there with the very best. I highly recommend it.

KWN

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa