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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872 - 1958)
Sinfonia Antartica (1950)
Deborah Wai Kopohe (soprano)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/James Judd.
DVD includes a visual tribute to the continent of Antartica. This includes historical footage of past explorer’s exploits on the continent, the wildlife of Antartica and a programme of artists’ and poets’ impressions of the continent, captured in exemplary pictures and words, plus a travel guide.
recorded in 1994, 1998 and 1999

This should not be considered a definitive performance of Vaughan Williams’ Sinfonia Antartica. It is more a travelogue film which uses the full edition of the symphony as background music. It is not that Judd’s reading is poor, it is just that for a full appreciation of RVW’s groundbreaking score, there are much better performances of the work around (Boult, Haitink and Handley - to name just three), although none of these are on DVD.

Very little information is given about the recording of the symphony. It is possible that this is the Naxos recording of the work, and if the visual elements of this release are less of interest, then I would suggest the CD gives a better idea of the performance than this DVD. The sound is noticeably compressed and this is easily apparent in numerous places throughout the score. Given the wide dynamic range of the DVD sound it would have been better to leave well alone, given that this is a digitally recorded performance; the engineers should have known better. Indeed, this could have been a BBC broadcast or Classic FM recording, the compression is so bad.

However, the visual aspects of this DVD are far more important. With this release you get the symphony, accompanied by still and time-phased photographs of many polar scenes with no shots of the orchestra. These images are often superb so much so that one is unlikely to notice the shortcomings in the recorded sound. The DVD certainly conveys a vivid impression of Antartica and its physical conditions without the discomfort of actually being there.

When we reach the end of the Symphony another benefit of this release is apparent. About two-thirds of the content of the disc are devoted to documentaries about the continent and the explorers who have opened out the place. These documentaries are mixtures of paintings, old filmed excerpts of the early expeditions by various explorers and their teams, contemporary shots of life on board cruise ships, research bases and staggeringly beautiful scenic panoramas in all kinds of weather.

In addition there is a section in text alone (no sound) which gives a comprehensive history, the main explorers and their achievements throughout the two hundred year history of the continent. This text even refers to the lengths tourists must go to in order to minimise pollution. This includes defecating on board ship prior to going ashore rather than leaving personal bundles within the confines of the shore-based facilities.

There is also a recommended further reading list for those interested in the Antartica with Reader’s Digest getting a well-deserved plug.

The only totally infuriating aspect was associated with choosing options on the menu screens. The contrast between ‘selected’ and ‘not selected’ is so poor that one is not at all sure which section of the disc has been chosen. The only excuse may be that due to my slight colour blindness this may be my own problem. However don’t say that you weren’t warned.

A very entertaining release which is well worth viewing and returning to, as I have done.

John Phillips


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