The 'Antartica' was one of three symphonies Vaughan Williams wrote in his Indian summer of the 1950s: its appearance surprised many after what seemed his final symphonic utterance in the nihilistic finale of the Sixth Symphony (1947-8). For this return to the form, the composwer drew on his music for the film 'Scott of the Antarctic', and told a tale of heroism and eventual defeat in a score of great musical invention. VW captures the glitter of the icefields with tuned persussion, their savage gales with a wind machine, and the lifeless desolation of the frozen continent with the wordless voices of keening women. The most dramatic moment comes towards the end of the Lento, where the organ (here, the mighty instrument of Liverpool Cathedral) conveys the overpowering majesty of the ice sheet, dwarfing the human beings who dare to cross it in their bid to reach the South Pole. The finale is the tragedy we know that ensues, but before the end, the composer reminds us of the sheer courage of the Scott Expedition, recapitulating the great upward striding tune that starts the synmphony.
Coupled with this is the choral version of the Serenade to Music, an alterantive to the usual setting with solo voices, though one misses the fine shading for each solo voice VW provided for the original singers in the first performance (identified by their initials in the score). This is one of the composer's most perfectly-realised works, a celebration alike of Shakespeare and British singing.
In this reissue, EMI have added a third work, the Partita, making this even more of a bargain.
The late Vernon Handley and the RLPO provide performances in no whit inferior to those of Boult and Haitink, and at a reasonable price - strongly recommended/.