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 (and, for some strange reason, in his Elgar too) he often navigated the corners a bit too fast with insufficient regard for colour and expressivety (de mortuis nihil nisi bene ... and all that, I apologize); among his compatriots, though - Elgar sadly not included - he 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 more than one way 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 presented 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 to it that outdoes all competition, but, to me, the acid test for any recording of VW's first has to be the swell of the orchestra in the finale after 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 restricts 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 some of my co-reviewers, I find the recorded sound to be very adequate, in places positively impressive - if a tad confined in the tuttis, 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 indisputably is, is slightly too lumbering for 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.
As usual for Chandos the SACD track sadly doesn't provide much extra depth or volume compared to the normal CD track. I don't know how BIS conjures up the marvels they have been producing lately ... but one could hope they would share the secret.