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Vaughan Williams: Scott of the Antarctic (complete score) - Yates

Vaughan Williams: Scott of the Antarctic (complete score) - Yates

Dutton  CDLX 7340

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral


Vaughan Williams: Scott of the Antarctic (complete score)

Ilona Domnich (soprano)
Christopher Nickol (organ)
Women of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra Chorus
Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Martin Yates (conductor)


It is a revelation to hear every note that Vaughan Williams wrote, late in 1947, for the then unmade film Scott of the Antarctic. There have been previous attempts to revisit some of the unused music he sketched for the film, but now conductor Martin Yates, with the support of the composer’s estate, has transcribed from the original manuscripts all the music, comprising some 41 beautifully rounded numbers. Vaughan Williams subsequently reworked some of this material in the Sinfonia Antartica, but on this recording we are able to hear for the first time his vivid reaction to the story, before the film was even shot. Standing independently beside the Sinfonia Antartica, this is a gripping symphonic experience in its own right.

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Review by John Miller - August 11, 2017

Dutton Epoch seems to be developing a most interesting sequence of Ralph Vaughan Williams' music; nearly lost works which require re-compilation or orchestration, and recorded in SACD. These works involve much historical research, then new scores prepared and finally conducted by Martin Yates, characterized by The Times newspaper as "one of the most exciting and versatile British conductors of his generation”. Yates evidently has a considerable affinity for RVW's music, and he adroitly passes this on to the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. The first of the group (Vaughan Williams: Fat Knight, Serenade to Music, Henry V - Yates) was very much praised.

For readers who know little or nothing about the English navy captain Robert Falcon Scott, in order to appreciate the music by Vaughan Williams in the Antarctic, here is a brief history of Scott. He was born in Plymouth (SW England) in 1868 and became a naval cadet at 13. He was promoted to lieutenant in 1889, and spread much of his time overseas. Although Scott was an excellent officer and a good sailor, he did experience some problems; he ran a boat aground in 1893, and his father declared bankruptcy for him in 1894.

As a youth, Scott became addicted to the competition between world-wide expeditions to reach the South Pole. For Britain, Scott led the National Antarctic Expedition in 1901. Although the team did not reach the South Pole, they made it further south than anyone before them. Scott’s second Antarctic expedition took place in 1910. Scott followed a prior attempt to reach the South Pole - Shackleton, whose route was up the Beardmore Glacier and on to the Polar Plateau. Scott relied on a combination of methods for travel, including man-hauling, two dog teams and 10 ponies, which were killed along the journey to provide fresh meat. Scott had pioneered a new transport method, motorised sledges, but despite high hopes they broke down soon after leaving.

Scott and the Polar Party – Bowers, Evans, Oates and Wilson – reached the South Pole on 17 January 1912, one month AFTER the Norwegians. Bitterly disappointed, Scott wrote, "Now for the run home and a desperate struggle". As they travelled north, they were slowed by unexpected cold, blizzards and sand-like ice that made man-hauling gruelling. Forced to reduce their daily rations, they began to starve. Exhausted and suffering from frostbite, they knew they might not make it. Evans died one month after reaching the Pole on 17 February. Four weeks later Oates walked into a blizzard never to return. He suffered from painful frostbite and could not go on and therefore sacrificed himself to give his comrades a chance to survive. Scott wrote, "He said, "I am just going outside and may be some time". We have not seen him since".

Scott and companions died some time in March 1912, from extreme cold, exhaustion and starvation on the return journey. Their bodies were subsequently discovered, located by finding the top of a tent in snow which was only within 20 km of supplies from the Scott depot. Each dying man had thought of home and wrote farewell letters, found in the tent when it was excavated. These were heartbreaking and powerful goodbyes to parents, wives and friends. Scott included his former commander and wrote to the public. The explorers were buried where they died and a cross was erected to mark their final resting place. After his death, Captain Scott became a national hero. Over 30 memorials were built to him in Britain and around the world, and the Scott Polar Research Institute was established.

But as a by-note, in following years, critics of Scott expressed anger that he had failed in his expedition, having made nothing worthy and just causing the death of his colleagues. Even Vaughan Williams sometimes expressed anger on those lines. However, earlier in their journey the Scott team spent some time researching Emperor Penguins and collecting their eggs. It was the first time that the flightless bird had been observed with its eggs. Scott and his team also left behind many films they took of wildlife in the Antarctic. Significantly, a fossil from a 250 million old tree was found next to Scott’s body. It helped to prove that the continents were once all joined together and that trees once grew in Antarctica. These activities suggest that Scott and his men of the Polar Party had more interest in Antarctica than merely claiming a first of the Pole.

After his death, Captain Scott became a national hero. Over 30 memorials were built to him in Britain and around the world, and the Scott Polar Research Institute was established. A film was much desired, but the war was raging.

In 1940, Vaughan-Williams (V-W) developed the idea of writing music for films, and approached the well-known Director, Muir Mathieson. A number of wartime scripts were being produced, and V-W was invited to produce musical scores, such as 'Coastal Command', and '49th Parellel' from which the composer gained much experience. At the end of the war, Ealing Studies asked V-W if he would make the music for 'Scott of the Atlantic', and in a discussion with the Ealing Film's Directors, they agreed to one of V-W's requirements, that he would not illustrate individual moments in close detail. This made a significant shape and content of his musical scenes.

Charles Frend was hired to direct and he brought in a splendid cast which included Sir John Mills as the titular character. V-W immediately began reading books on the Antarctic to better familiarize himself with the film’s setting. He composed an amazing 996 bars of music, although regretfully less than half was used. After the film's final cut music was complete, conducted by V-W himself, he was self-prompted to making a new full symphony to use some of the piles of scores used or not used. However, he was at the same time writing some other of his greatest orchestral pieces, so Symphony No. 7 (aka Sinfonia Antarctica) was not complete until 1952.

Since then, there has been several different arrangements of musical episodes from the 'Scott of the Antarctic' film for recording and playing at concert. However, Martin Yate's research of the various sets of manuscripts for the film which V-W has left has allowed him to produce a new and complete set, containing much unaltered music in the 7th Symphony. The title is "Scott of the Antarctic: the complete score (1947-8). Including numbers excluded from the final cut of the film. Transcribed and edited from the original manuscript by Martin Yates (2016)". Of 41 sections on this disc, the World Première Recording List is 3, 6-10, 12, 16-18,21-22, 26, 30-33, 36, 38-40.

The Scott film music has innovative orchestration for its time; especially percussion - tam-tam, tubular bells, glockenspiel, xylophone and a wind machine together with the usual drums. A piano is treated as tuned percussion, and an organ, which plays solo in parts of Symphony 7, but on the film mainly provides textures. It is only really easy to hear it playing above massed basses in the final episode. Christopher Nickol is the organist, a prominent one in Scotland, but strangely not mentioned in the SACD booklet. Ilona Domnich (soprano) and women of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra Chorus provide a disembodied aspect to the first and last movements, achieved sometimes by placing the vocalists with their backs to the microphone.

The Royal Scottish National Orchestra (RSNO), conducted by Martin Yates, have the job to tell us about man’s quest into the unknown, to triumph over nature itself, a cruel, unpredictable and implacable adversary. This, I think, they certainly can do in music. I have been to glaciers in north Norway and Iceland, watched so long at the aurora borealis that I was nearly lost from cold. My local doctor spent a whole Winter (six months with no physical contact) in a research Station of a British Antarctic Survey site; I read his fascinate book. Listening to this slab of music from a rather overweight English composer who had never been to places of heavy cold, I am amazed at how he could enlighten the history of Captain Scott and his companions so vividly.

Even in this vividly serious story, V-W theatrically gives us a few movements of humour. Track 10, for example; just before leaving on his voyage, the Queen's Birthday March passes Scott's office and a splendidly orchestrated Edwardian jaunty street march, sounding quite cheeky. Track 15 "Penguins Dance", is a comic interlude with staccato woodwinds supporting their gait, and playful sliding descending strings suggest their slide into the water. Track 19, Aurora 1 (there are more) finds us watching night sky over the base camp. It offers another glorious score highlight as we bear witness to a resplendent aurora australis, which dances against the star rich polar night sky. Slowly, but inexorably, woodwinds and strings rise, gaining voice. Twinkling is born of brilliant horn declarations, attesting to the wonder of the aurora australis as they crescendo gloriously!

Humour aside, the story goes on, track by track, to the death of the remaining explorers. In scene after scene Vaughan-Williams offers a sound-scape that fully matches the visual splendour of Nature's vast frozen vistas in which the humans try to fulfil their desires, while being perfectly involved with the depth of inevitable unfolding human dramas. And the performances from RSNO and the vocalists clearly transfer all of this to us, the listeners.

To get the best from such a complex sets of instrumental tones and their unusual combinations in this piece, an appropriate venue is essential. In this case, it is Caird Hall, a concert auditorium located in Dundee, NE Scotland. It was built between 1914 and 1923 and is named after its benefactor, jute baron James Key Caird. For many years, its spacious, clear acoustics ensuring that it has been much praised for recording. For the RSNO, this hall is well understood by all the instrumentalists, as it is visited several times a year in its tours around Scotland. The strings are very smooth in their tones, and the brass and wind instrument players are well able to utilise the hall's various resounding sonic shapes and sizes for interesting effects - superb for this particular piece, as it can make a sense of wide distances without loosing details. The vocalists sound ethereal (some times, Ilona Domnich sings away from the microphone and the sense of real vast distances is deeply touching). Superb control by Martin Yates.

The hybrid SACDs were made at standard stereo CD layer at 16-bit 44.1khz, and two separate high-resolution layers, each of which have been mastered at DXD 352. Time: 79. According to the near end of the Dutton Epoch catalogue only the LR front and LR rear speakers are mentioned; playing Pure Direct with my Denon 4000 amp clearly shows no signals for front or sub, confirming this.

The booklet is in English only, which probably means more room for information, of which there is plenty in this complex mixture of wartime history of making a film about a field piece of exploration which has nearly become universally known. Lewis Foreman writes a detail account which is further added to by the music historian and conductor Martin Yates. Several photographs including V-W at a recording session for the film, and RSNO recording in the Caird Hall, showing the layout with the cellos to the front right, violas central and violins I & II to the conductor.

Working with this new SACD from Dutton Epoch has been a very emotional period, and I found it amazing that V-W got most of his information, geological, geographic and meteorological, from a single text book and then make it into music which most listeners can interpret. All thanks to Martin Yates for this work to reconstruct a complete set of music for the Scott film, and thanks for Ralph Vaughan Williams to create for us in music a sense of desolation, coldness, and loneliness in a land of pristine beauty. Highly recomended, Highly enjoyed and Highly respected.

Copyright © 2017 John Miller and HRAudio.net

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Comments (9)
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Comment by wilbur - July 4, 2017 (1 of 9)

Anyone know if this SACD is indeed Multichannel (as it says it is on this site) rather than the ordinary 2 channel stereo that is what Dutton SACDs seem to be?

Comment by William Hecht - July 4, 2017 (2 of 9)

The more recent group of Dutton sacds that are listed here as multichannel are indeed multichannel going back to the Armstrong Gibbs disc. A number of them include completions or realizations by Martin Yates and others that make them especially unique and valuable.

Comment by john hunter - July 10, 2017 (3 of 9)

It is certainly MC and an excellent recording as you would expect from Mr Dutton.
More than just a stop gap till we get the Sinfonia.
Under Yates guidance, the score becomes an extended tone poem.
Highly recommended.

Comment by diw - August 13, 2017 (4 of 9)

Does anyone know if and when this will be for sale on Amazon USA?

Comment by William Hecht - August 16, 2017 (5 of 9)

At least here in the US I find it's best to order from Dutton directly at duttonvocalion.co.uk. Service is good, prices are fair and as long as you order several discs at a time shipping is reasonable in both time and cost. Presto classical in the UK is also a good source. Dutton is doing some of the most interesting new work available,with many admirable completions, new editions, etc. to make the pieces performable. Among others Mr Yates deserves great praise for bring a number of these pieces to a modern audience. Bravo!

Comment by hiredfox - August 28, 2017 (6 of 9)

This disc has a wonderful ambience near DSD quality. John states in his review that a sample rate of 8 x RBCD was used for the digital recording which is uniquely unusual for SACD and so close to DXD that one is bound to ask why this format was chosen. Was it merely to avoid paying licensing fees for DXD? I hope somebody from Dutton can offer us an explanation as it is an intriguing choice at least to me! Are there any sonic benefits over DXD?

How did you find this information John and is the format used for all Dutton SACD recordings?

There are some classically (VW) good tunes in amongst more routine film track dross so worth buying for those alone. Without video accompaniment of course some of the more mundane stuff has no context and does not hold interest. Not sure many would run this through in one sitting.

As a footnote it is pleasing to have the Royal Scottish National Orchestra appearing regularly on Dutton as well as Chandos especially after the demise of Linn SACD.

Comment by ubertrout - August 29, 2017 (7 of 9)

I'm pretty sure DXD is 24-bit 352khz - as described here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_eXtreme_Definition

Great review, by the way. Really heightens my interest in hearing this.

Comment by hiredfox - August 29, 2017 (8 of 9)

That's fair. Depending on information source 352kH PCM and 384kH PCM have been described as DXD. DXD was developed as a proprietry editing format for DSD by Merging Technologies and Pyramix but not as a recording format per se. One comment I have seen is that DXD and 352/24 PCM are 'essentially' similar. What's in that word one wonders.

Comment by John Miller - September 1, 2017 (9 of 9)

Hi,
The figure in my review that the SACDs had "been mastered at DXD 352" came from the SACD section of the Dutton Epoch catalogue, near the bottom. However, at the time I was writing the review, I emailed to the company to see the quote from the generalized figure in the catalogue was indeed written for Scott of the Antarctic, but I had no reply until yesterday, when Mike Dutton wrote "That one was DXD 352"; I edited the cataloguers previous figure right away.

Thanks,
John