on 2 November 2012
Whatever its idiosyncrasies might have been, the British Empire produced a crop of extraordinary individuals and three of the most intrepid were Robert Falcon Scott, Sir Ernest Shackleton and George Mallory - men who were willing to parry oblivion `because it's there'. Vaughan Williams' Seventh Symphony could serve as a cenotaph for the triumvirate.
Armchair explorers take note: this performance of the Sinfonia Antarctica is a great success. Above all, it conveys immensity, heroism and peril. The First Movement in particular is hair-raising, as if one is trying to surmount the Second Step on Everest in the failing light. The London Philharmonic plays fierily. Sheila Armstrong and the Choir of the London Philharmonic are evocative in their wordless melismas. While it is a pity that no-one declaims the various superscriptions which preface each movement, the music-making is vivid enough to convey their meaning. The EMI recording is superlative.
The wind-machine is the one blot on this endeavour - it sounds like a two dollar kazoo from the opp-shop.
While the wider Haitink / RVW cycle has been issued as a bargain box, it is by no means a first choice, compelling as it is. This single issue still holds currency.
This disc, suitably and finely recorded with depth in 1985, is a very fine rendition of Vaughan Williams' seventh symphony, subtitled Antarctica, reflecting the source of its inspiration. The film depicts Scott's ill-fated expedition to the South Pole and Vaughan Williams was commissioned to write the music. While doing so, he became so engrossed by the subject that he reworked much of the material into his next symphony. The degree of reworking combined with fresh material took the music out of the realm of a film score suite and more properly into a symphonic conception.
The music is highly atmospheric and makes use of a large orchestra, wordless female chorus, wordless solo soprano, organ and wind machine. The core of the work is the central third movement, and within that movement, the massive organ entry representing the enormous blocks of ice. This movement, entitles 'Landscape, is based on a quotation from Coleridge and the subject matter is obviously portrayed musically. Each movement has similar quotations taken from a number of literary sources. These may enhance understanding but the music is sufficiently vivid as to not need such knowledge for comprehension.
Haitink, with his typically sober, level-headed, clear-cut thinking so suitable for Mahler, is here ideally matched to this symphony too. The symphony consequently has great seriousness of purpose, towering strength and sense of direction. The orchestra, well used to performing for him, responds with complete conviction. The engineers balance all the forces involved with remarkably fine judgement to produce a superlative aural result.
I would suggest that this disc stands out in a crowd when it comes to considering this symphony and, as such, is worth serious consideration. The playing time, at just under 42 minutes, is short and there is now a box of the complete symphonies which makes a far more attractive proposition for those interested in more than this one symphony. However, for those just wishing to purchase this one symphony and where quality matters more than quantity, this still deserves to be considered as a front-runner.
on 24 February 2013
I never thought that I would find a copy of this piece of music as the last time I heard it was in the fifties, it was brought to mind the other week when watching a program on the box about Antarctica and a snatch of the symphony was used in the background reminding me of this lovely piece of music. I checked on Amazon and there it was, this recording sounded the best rendering and so it seems.