Featuring material made for New Zealand television, this well produced DVD contains not just a visual setting of Vaughan Williams' Sinfonia Antarctica with excellent Dolby Digital 5.1 sound, but a range of supporting materials which put the vast majority of music titles to shame.
Vaughan Williams' Sinfonia Antarctica, aka the composer's seventh symphony, was developed from the most ambitious and large-scale of VW's 11 film scores, Scott of the Antarctic (1948). Just three months ago Chandos issued the first essentially complete recording of the film score - only around half of which was used in the released feature - while this DVD takes the process in the opposite direction, adding new images to a recording of the symphony based on the film score, thus taking the symphony back to the screen.
The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra are no strangers to film music, having recorded several notable CDs of the music of Miklós Rózsa, and here they have a good grasp of VW's epic work under the baton of James Judd. There may not be the same monumental power to the organ entrance in the central Landscape movement as Vernon Handley finds with the Royal Liverpool Symphony (EMI Eminence CD-EMX 2173), but otherwise this is commendable account. One might just quibble at the somewhat forced sound of the wind machine in the Epilogue.
Among the bonuses are the tremendously involving multi-channel sound. This really places the listener in the centre of the musical drama in an icily effective way. Title cards are placed "silent movie" fashion between the movements, presenting the quotations with which VW prefaced the movements in his score. These short segments are accompanied by highly atmospheric wind effects, which while they will upset some purists, significantly enhance the audio-visual experience.
More of a mixed bag are the images chosen to accompany the music. These include footage of early Antarctic explorers, and for the finale, contrasting images of modern day settlement on the continent. Elsewhere we are taken beneath the Antarctic ocean, or else shown assorted landscape views. Sadly all this is presented at an aspect ratio of 14:9, rather than full widescreen TV anamorphic 16:9, and so the visual impact, especially when coupled with slightly grainy images, is somewhat less than it might have been. However, much worse is the editorial decision to fill the screen with way too many shots of rapidly racing clouds, achieved by time-lapse photography. It is as if it has been deemed that the music and landscapes alone will not be sufficient to hold our attention. That we must also have incessant movement. In this way, the remote, slow grandeur of the continent is simply reduced to the level of a rock video. Oh that we had been allowed to simply savour the still majesty of the scenes before our eyes. Nevertheless, the music alone in Dolby Digital 5.1, plus the other material on the DVD, makes this disc well worth the asking price.
Sadly there is nothing on Vaughan Williams, his music or the film which inspired it. However, Icebound is a 52 minute documentary giving a potted history of Antarctic exploration, and features much fascinating archive material, including footage of such celebrated figures as Frank Hurley, Sir Edmund Hilary and Sir Vivian Fuchs. The Unframed Continent is a less successful, though highly entertaining 52 minute documentary, recording the visit to Antarctica in 1994 of two New Zealand poets and one painter. There's a little of This is Spinal Tap to the progress of the trio, as, to put it bluntly, they are rather less gifted than they believe themselves to be. Some of the poetry has the unintentionally laughable quality of an average intelligent teenager's attempts at meaningful verse. The painting is naïve and pretentious at once. Reflections of Antarctica is an 11 minute segment on Baden Norris, Antarctic Curator at Canterbury Museum, Christchurch, New Zealand, and is worthwhile though hardly essential viewing. Several of the same stock shots of Antarctica recur between the various films on this DVD.
Also included are several still pages of Antarctic Facts and, of real interest to anyone planning to visit the continent, what appears to be the entire Antarctica section from the Rough Guide series of travel books. This runs to dozens of highly informative pages and is an unexpected bonus. Sound throughout is excellent Dolby Digital 5.1 and the pictures are very good, if not up with the best transfers from feature films.