BBCSO/Brabbins: Scott from Antarctic Review – stunning orchestration is superbly played | Classical music

JTo mark the 150th anniversary of the birth of Ralph Vaughan Williams, the BBC Symphony Orchestra (BBCSO) and Martyn Brabbins turned to Vaughan Williams’ score for Charles Frend’s 1948 film Scott of the Antarctic about the ill-fated expedition Briton at the South Pole in 1910-1912, performed as a live accompaniment to a beautifully restored copy of the film itself. The score is one of the greatest ever written for the cinema, and also one of the most familiar: Vaughan Williams reused much of it in his 1952 Sinfonia Antartica, an equally remarkable, if sometimes different work in the tone from its source.

Some sections of the film are a bit dated. In particular, the opening sequences detailing the preparations for the expedition and briefly sketching the lives Scott (John Mills) and his men leave behind now strike us as overly studio-oriented and occasionally clunky. The music is used sparingly here, but when we reach the main part of the film, largely shot in Norway and Switzerland, the fusion of sound and image can become overwhelming with the score played live.

Shifting chords, snapping percussion and the icy sound of a wordless female choir and soprano soloist mirror the eerie, sometimes beautiful, ultimately unforgiving polar landscape through which we watch the men struggle as the unforgettable theme which represents their desperate courage surges around them. Sudden plunges into silence are an integral part of the overall impact, as are the moments when the sound of the life-devouring blizzard gradually erases the dialogue, singers and orchestra. Vaughan Williams was perhaps equivocal about the ending, in which memorials are erected and a noble choir rises nobly upwards – music which, tellingly, finds no role in the Symphony, which is ends in an atmosphere of overwhelming desolation and despair.

The BBCSO played it all superbly for Brabbins, who was acutely attentive to every flicker of color in Vaughan Williams’ often stunning orchestration. The singers are more important in the film than the symphony: Elizabeth Watts was the soprano soloist, her voice soaring, disembodied and spooky, above the eerie, echoing ululations of the female voices of the BBC Symphony Chorus. Incredibly powerful and sometimes extraordinarily moving.

Comments are closed.