I fell asleep at a performance of Vaughan Williams' "A Sea Symphony" some years ago. It is a LONG piece. I would not recommend it as a first Vaughan Williams purchase, unless you are a particular fan of choral music.
On the other hand, I couldn't ignore it. Robert Shaw (America's "Mr. Choral Music") described this symphony on the radio as "the most beautiful piece of choral music written in the 20th century". Wow! That covers 100 years, you know. And I deeply enjoy other pieces by RVW, including his Four Hymns and Five Mystical Songs.
So I bought this CD and now, instead of listening to this 70-minute symphony in one very long sweep, I listen to songs and sections.
The symphony is a setting of poems by Walt Whitman that celebrate human daring, and RVW matched that by writing an immense symphony. If you have not heard this symphony before, you could not imagine the sonic images Vaughan Williams creates for ships, sailors, and the sea. The first notes at the music's very beginning have the full chorus and orchestra at top voice
singing "Behold, the Sea itself!" It is startlingly majestic, and yet it is followed by an almost vulgarly pop and spiky little tune for male voice (baritone) and bassoon that I now sing everyday while shaving "today, a rude brief recitative about ships sailing the sea ..." The diversity is wonderful - Vaughan Williams must have oozed all kinds of music, since he composed the hushed hymn-like Tallis Fantasia at about the same time.
If you are new to Vaughan Williams, I would suggest you purchase Boult's wonderful collection of short RVW compositions first. It is also in EMI's British Composers series. It has the lovely and songful "Serenade to Music", the tune-filled and simple "English Folk Song Suite", and the lovely beyond words and soul-filled "The Lark Ascending." As a first symphonic purchase, the "London Symphony" (#2) is wonderful. But if you know Vaughan Williams already and just don't know "the Sea Symphony", fear not: It is a great score. The quality and variety of the melodies is deeply satisfying; the rhythms swing and stride at one moment and are raptly processional at another; the harmonies are rich and can be colorful or strange and foreboding; the orchestra is used idiosyncratically. The sonic range is enormous: the baritone sings quietly in meditation of the sea at night at one point, and at another the entire chorus calls out in joy, "Sail forth!"
There are several recordings of this symphony. Which to choose? You cannot go wrong with this CD. This performance has been admired for a generation. I might prefer Thomas Allen's "rude brief recitative" for Leonard Slatkin, but the composer himself admired John Carol Case's singing (in "The Pilgrim's Progress") and Adrian Boult had been performing Vaughan Williams' music for 40 years when this recording was made. He premiered major pieces. He knew Vaughan Williams' music as few others and he captures every mood. He sings and dances, meditates and exults.