Vaughan Williams at 150, ‘Scott of the Antarctic’: CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★★★

It was a promising idea to show Ealing Films’ sober and reverential ‘Scott of the Antarctic’, with a score by Vaughan Williams, as part of the composer’s 150th celebrations. Tommy Pearson, the man behind the project and a familiar face as a presenter of CBSO concerts devoted to film music, revealed that it was also a tricky one. Modern movies have a separate music track, just select the ‘off’ button and the orchestra can play without a problem. But this 1948 film is technically primitive in comparison, cramming dialogue, sound effects and music onto a mono soundtrack in a seemingly inextricable combination. The Los Angeles-based technical wizards Audionamix painstakingly separated them and while, as Pearson adds there was still, “quite a fiddly process” to synchronize Vaughan Williams’ music cues and the screen images, it worked. Was it worth all the effort? Absolutely.

The musical experience was a revelation. It’s one thing straining to hear the Philharmonia on the original soundtrack but a quantum leap to experience Martyn Brabbins conducting the CBSO, using more than eighty players, in full cry. Vaughan Williams wrote eighty minutes of music for the film of which thirty-eight were used on the soundtrack but Pearson restored some of the cues that director Charles Frend had cut. Even before an image appeared on screen we heard the haunting music, familiar from the composer’s reworking the material for his Sinfonia Antartica, depicting the icy Antarctic wastes (or their animistic spirit) with shivering strings and ethereal wordless vocalizing from soprano Katie Trethewey and the girls of the CBSO Youth Chorus. The combination of Technicolor images and music was fascinating, moving and varied – from the comic scherzo for tumbling penguins to the awe-inspiring Aurora Australis (Southern Lights) whose shimmering quality Vaughan Williams captured using a huge range of percussion. The film is of its time with Scott (John Mills) with his team of stiff upper-lipped jolly good chaps. The expedition’s poor planning, under-funding and Scott’s strategic mistakes are glossed over. But it’s a tale of heroism and only the mean-spirited could not be moved by the last three men – only eleven miles away from salvation – facing death and how Vaughan Williams’ menacing and louring brass-heavy minor key theme is elevated and transformed for the closing titles. The dying Captain Oates’ immortal words as he leaves the tent so as not to be a burden to his friends are still the perfect epitome of British stoicism and understatement: “I'm just going outside and may be some time.”

Norman Stinchcombe

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