Friday, March 11, 2022
Barbican Hall, London
Guest Reviewer, Brian Barford
“A compelling synthesis of film and music as the BBC SO perform Vaughan Williams’s ground-breaking orchestral score live to accompany a screening of Charles Frend’s landmark movie. In 1944, Ealing Studios started to plan a film based on Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated attempt to reach the South Pole. The team was unanimous in its choice of a composer. ‘Everyone agreed that if Vaughan Williams could be interested, he was the one man in the world to write the score,’ recalled the studio’s director of music, Ernest Irving. The score Vaughan Williams delivered is now recognized as one of the most outstanding works of its kind, its distinctive sound world of tremolo strings and wordless soprano voice conjuring up the unworldly conditions Scott faced and eventually making their way into the composer’s own Sinfonia Antartica. Marking 150 years since the composer’s birth, Martyn Brabbins conducts Vaughan Williams’s extraordinary cinematic masterpiece live to a restored version of Charles Frend’s Scott of the Antarctic.” [Barbican Centre website]
Brian Barford writes…
Scott of the Antarctic (1948) may be the ultimate British stiff-upper-lip drama but it allowed Vaughan Williams the opportunity to produce arguably his best film work. The score, with its unique sound-world, was later transformed by the composer into Sinfonia Antartica [sic; Symphony No.7] but with this showing of the complete film in a fine print it was evident that he had left out some good music from the film score. He composed a quantity of music before seeing the finished film and some of this, both used and not, was played as a brief prelude.
It’s a film with an interesting history. Michael Balcon of Ealing Studios wanted to make a story of British heroism at a time of crumbling empires and a new world order. It was meant to be a prestige project with location work in Technicolor, a concentration on authenticity of detail and a score by one of Britain’s most-famous composers.
Locations in Antarctica, Norway and Switzerland were used but shooting was done in different seasons by three different cinematographers, including Jack Cardiff, which led to colour disparity in the photography, which can still be seen. There were also major problems with the artificial snow when shooting in the studio. More importantly, there were considerable difficulties in getting permission from the survivors of the expedition, particularly Lord Mountevans, formerly Lieut. Teddy Evans (played by Kenneth More). This led to a major weakness with the film – it charts the progress of the expedition without analysing its reasons for failure. And failure it is – as Scott’s team are both beaten to the South Pole by the rival Norwegian team led by Amundsen (never seen in the film) and then fail to survive the return journey. Scott’s arrogance and amateurism in failing to plan properly and particularly his trust in unreliable motor sledges and ponies rather than teams of snow-dogs is shown but not examined in any detail.
Despite those weaknesses Scott of the Antarctic is still a considerable experience when seen on a big screen and with a live orchestra. The director Charles Frend had made the wartime San Demetrio London (1943) and would go on to make The Cruel Sea (1953; Jack Hawkins, Stanley Baker, et al; music by Alan Rawsthorne) and does a fine job without giving the film a critical edge. There is great gusto in the opening sequences where the expedition is being put together, the ‘penguin interlude’ (VW’s music adding to the comedy) provides welcome light relief and Frend often evokes visually the photography of Herbert Ponting from the original expedition. The team spirit of the venture is well caught as is the menace of the snowfields.
It’s a movie of fine performances. The largely forgotten Harold Warrender is a dignified presence as the scientist Wilson, reading Tennyson in the snowy wastes, and James Robertson Justice is suitably bear-like and fruity-voiced as Petty Officer Taff Evans. John Mills offers heroic determination as Scott whilst hinting at his reckless and manipulative nature. There are characterful faces and solid performances all the way down the batting order and the young Christopher Lee is glimpsed briefly. The sound-design is also important, as distinct from the score, with throbbing engines, howling winds and sudden drops into silence all evoking the nature of the enterprise.
The music itself has a gaunt splendour. The reduced dynamic range of the original soundtrack gives little idea of the size of orchestra that VW used and seeing the massed ranks of harp, wind-machine, piano, celesta, gongs, bells, and vibraphone was illuminating. It is surprising how little music there is in the scenes showing preparations for the expedition and homelife in Britain. Things really kick into gear when the company arrives in the Antarctic with edgy strings and glittering percussion. The ascent of the Beardmore Glacier has a craggy grandeur and austere beauty that is the highpoint of the score. Not everything works and the very close memorialising Scott and company – not used in the subsequent Symphony – seems hollow and perfunctory.
Nevertheless, it was a pleasure to hear the score live and so well-played. Martyn Brabbins, whose ongoing Vaughan Williams Symphony Cycle for Hyperion is becoming increasingly essential, made the most of every opportunity and missed no detail. The BBC Symphony Orchestra was in fine form throughout as was the wordless women’s chorus. Elizabeth Watts supplied an icy purity that made one regret Vaughan Williams did not give the soprano more to do.
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins, with Elizabeth Watts (soprano) & BBC Symphony Chorus.
Recent BBCSO reviews on Colin’s Column include http://www.colinscolumn.com/bbc-symphony-orchestra-senja-rummukainen-plays-elgars-cell/ and http://www.colinscolumn.com/bbc-symphony-orchestra-barbican-centre-semyon-bychkov-conducts-mari-pictures-at-an-exhibition-kirill-gerstein-plays-richard-strausss-burleske-live-broadcast-on-bbc-ra/.