In a time of chilling isolation for so many people, the centerpiece of today’s album is the Sinfonia Antarctica, British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams’ seventh and most haunting symphony, just released by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Andrew Manze and streaming at Spotify.
This 1953 epic is an exploration of vastness and all-pervasive cold. Some might call much of this classical heavy metal. It’s rarely performed, partly because it requires such lavish instrumentation. There’s an organ that leaps in to shock you for a few bars. The score also calls for a choir, plus wordless vocals from a soprano (Rowan Pierce, in this case), a wind machine and a small warehouse worth of percussion. In that sense, it’s sort of the Nutcracker for adults. No matter how you feel about Vaughan Williams’ music, you can’t fault him for thinking outside the box.
Thematically, the piece traces the grim trail of Robert Falcon Scott’s doomed 1912 Antarctic expedition. For a composer, this subject matter is problematic in that there comes a point where desolation becomes interminable (Sarah Kirkland Snyder grappled with that same issue in Penelope, her exploration of the Odyssey from the home front). This is a long piece of music – and the orchestra weather the storm, titanically.
In his weatherbeaten voice, marrator Timothy West introduces each of the symphony’s five movements, the first with a quote from Percy Shelley – totally Iron Maiden, right? The mighty, somber opening theme telegraphs where this beast is going. Icy tubular bells, gothic soprano vocalese and echoes of the creepiest section of Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals appear quickly. Agitated swirls from the strings – “We’ve got to call this off!” – are answered by cruel insistence from the brass, underscored by the stomp of the bass drums. A monochromatic landscape has seldom been so colorful.
The second movement has resolute brass against a spinning string section, a gleefully sinister dance from the xylophone and closes with a a pensive first encounter with the endlessness of the glacial terrain. Everything slows down in the third movement, with a pervasive ominousness, up to a rumbling gloom and Graham Eccles’ big organ break: this orchestra’s low strings are fantastic here.
The wistful fourth movement pictures the men of the expedition missing their sweeties at home, but a lightly trudging hope against hope from strings and high winds pushes that out of the picture. As the symphony sways toward its untimely end, a determined brightness persists against all kinds of low-register foreshadowing, but that heroism proves unsustainable and fades down to the washes of a ghostly angel choir.
The record also includes an equally vivid recording of the composers’s ninth and final symphony, notable for what was in 1958 the innovation of three saxophones amid the winds. It has a similarly macabre Tess of the D’Urbervilles subtext.
There’s looming trouble, anxiously silken clarity from the saxes, Tschaikovskian drama and moody Dvorakian landscape in the first movement. That drama continues with a lonely solo flugelhorn intro and rises from a martial menace to a gloomy sweep in the second: there seems to be a sudden moment where poor Tess meets her fate.
Movement three gets a suspiciously satirical strut to its militaristic pulses and stomps: a listener gets the feeling that the composer was not a fan of violence. The orchestra grow calmer and more lustrous as the conclusion begins, but once again trouble is on the horizon, drawing closer and closer. Daytime struggle alternates with brief, nocturnal respite: nighttime eventually wins. A momumental achievement for this inspired orchestra.