Iva Davies, Christopher
Gordon & Richard Tognetti,
Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World
(Decca, 2003)

One day, I will review a soundtrack for a film I've actually seen. Until that day, I'm fated to review the film music of movies as yet unbeheld. This is both a good and a bad thing, as I can examine the music as music, but am poorly positioned to comment upon the ways in which a given musical thread enhances or detracts from the cinematic experience. With that caveat in place, then, let us plough full ahead into the swells navigated by Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World (hereafter, Master & Commander or M&C).

The disc opens with "Far Side of the World," an overture that captures the sweep of the musical narrative explored in the soundtrack. It is a typical overture in that it visits themes and motifs that will be revisited at length further on, and thus the listener is prepared for a large orchestral sound that will prominently feature deep percussion and lower register brasses and strings. It is easy to imagine that the composers were seeking to evoke a sense of conflict, both man with nature and man with man on both the personal and political/military levels; in this evocation, they succeed. In places, you can fairly hear the deepening of the sea.

The aptly-titled "Into the Fog" takes one into a similar space musically, while accomplishing the neat musical feat of carrying the audience along on a wave of optimistic foreboding. From there, the musical program finds itself in a Baroque/Romantic parlour for an excerpt from Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 3.

The gem of the collection next takes center stage: the hornpipe "The Cuckold Comes Out of the Amery" features a spirited duel between tin whistle and fiddle and is as fine a period musical interlude as one could desire, featuring some excellent work from fiddler/violinist Tognetti. Master & Commander next offers the smartly titled "Smoke n'Oakum," which is presented in the form of martial drums, deeply sonorous brass and edgy strings. Then, it's back to the drawing-room for a bit of Vaughn Williams' "Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis" (exceptionally well mounted) and a pensive chamber offering, "Adagio" by Correlli.

From there, it's back down to the sea in ships with "The Doldrums," which, true to its name, is dark and doesn't move much. It does naught to prepare the listener for what may be the definitive reading of Bach's Prelude to Cello Suite No. 1, played with exceptional depth by Yo-Yo Ma. The following sea takes us to "The Galapagos," a place where Bernard Hermann violins eventually yield to cellos and string basses whose ominous chord progressions hint at rough seas ahead. We are next treated to a folk medley that quotes the earlier "Cuckold" and gives way to the lively dance tunes "O'Sullivan's March," the classic "Mother Hen," "Mary Scott" and "Nancy Dawson." All are delightfully drawn together and played with brio by Master Tognetti and company.

The musical pinnacle is reached with "The Phasmid" and "The Battle," with the latter using pounding drums and ghostly whistles to suggest both the urgency of the fight and the somber mood of the ensuing resolve. We then are given a piece of Boccherini's "La Musica Notturna delle Strade di Madrid," and in the brief closing offering "Full Circle," there is the musical suggestion of unfinished business as the narrative concludes (for now).

For those who are devotees of the film, or fans of period jigs and hornpipes, I strongly recommend this soundtrack. I also eagerly look forward to actually seeing the movie that I've already "heard."

- Rambles
written by Gilbert Head
published 3 April 2004

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