If I were to recommend one single complete cycle of Vaughan Williams symphonies, it would be Haitink's. The Sinfonia antartica is in no sense my favorite VW symphony, but I have to admit that this performance makes a pretty convincing case for it. The work is based on VW's film score for "Scott of the Antartic" and the symphony is thus some very pictorial atmosphere-setting music recast in symphonic form, including special effects.
The first movement vividly portrays the cold, harsh yet majestic landscapes of Antartica, complete with a female choir and a solo female voice, here ably handled by Sheila Armstrong. Haitink's reading really brings out the feeling of desolation and grandeur more than any other I have heard. The second movement is lighter in mood, but in Haitink's version the playfulness acquires a slightly otherworldly and chilly tinge which is fully appropriate. In the third movement, fragments of themes are heard above a tapestry of changing, dark orchestral colors culminating in a powerful, haunting climax boosted by the entrance of the organ. This obviously gives Haitink an opportunity to do what he is best at; to patiently build up and realize a powerful climax - and he certainly doesn't let us down here. The fourth movement starts out with a desolate oboe part that seems to suggest memories and dreams of warmer lands, which develops to utter tragedy, and the fifth again starts out with an element of hopefulness and stoic defiance, but the mood is soon overtaken by the freezing cold and desolate atmosphere of the first movement with the haunting, slightly elegaic female voice.
Sometimes it almost seems as if the symphony was written specifically with Haitink in mind. The reading truly brings out the cold sense of otherworldliness the score needs - and of course the London Philharmonic players respond with magisterial playing, fully realizing the various bleak colors and changes in atmosphere (in particular in the last two movements). Sound quality is good as well.