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Beautiful collection of music from magnificent tv series
A review by JAMES SOUTHALL
Music composed by
* * * * 1/2
Album running time
Album cover copyright (c) 2006 BBC Worldwide Limited; review copyright (c) 2007 James Southall
One of the (many) curiosities of British life is that we have to pay tax in order to watch television. This seems so bizarre to many people (though the tax, which funds the BBC, is lower than most people pay for their subscription channels which offer rather less quality content) and I'm sure most viewers would easily produce a long list of things the BBC does very badly. However, its unique funding position means that it is in a position to do something no other broadcaster in the world would do, and that is to spend vast quantities of money on "important" television even though it's not going to be able to compete in the ratings with whatever awful "reality" show is on at the moment. One of these unthinkably expensive shows was my own television highlight of last year, the awe-inspiring Planet Earth, a documentary series about our planet and its animal inhabitants which may have been at the coffee-table-book level when it came to the educational value, but was as visually striking as anything I've seen. There were so many unforgettable sequences, so much beauty, and so much horror at what mankind is doing to take all of this away.
It came from the same production team as the same channel's Blue Planet, which inspired George Fenton to write one of the finest television scores of recent years, and unsurprisingly he was back for Planet Earth, again providing his sweeping, lyrical accompaniment to what must surely be as potent fodder as a film composer could wish to score. The series was divided into eleven episodes tackling distinct subjects, and each one has between three and five tracks on this long double CD album released by EMI towards the end of 2006.
The opening episode, "From Pole to Pole", was a kind of "contents page", giving a broad overview of some of the treats in store over the coming weeks. Fenton's main theme is brief but perfectly formed, becoming grander and warmer as the sun rises spectacularly over the silhouetted planet in the opening title sequence. "The Journey of the Sun" introduces a theme which Fenton used liberally during the series (but which, presumably in an attempt to avoid repetition, is hardly heard on this album after the second track) - a pinched trumpet solo engaged in a bittersweet duet with trademark Fenton oboe writing. "Hunting Dogs" sees the composer using some appropriately visceral music for the raw images, with electronics overlaying thunderous brass-and-percussion action music composed in Fenton's unmistakable way. "Elephants in the Okavango" is an elegant, almost elegiac portrait of the gentle giants which sees a playful air injected into the music for the first (but far from the last) time.
The second episode represented on the album, "Caves", calls for a very different sound, with bells, percussion, synths, female vocalist and even duduk being used to provide an exotic, mysterious sound perfectly in keeping with the visuals. Even in this context, Fenton manages to extract real beauty in "Stalactite Gallery", with the bells suggesting the drip-drip-drip of water in the cave forming the otherworldly sculptures and their beauty being enhanced by the surprisingly effective synthesised backdrop. There's more obvious beauty in "Discovering Deer Cave", with the long-lined string melodies augmented by a piano solo - there is such elegance here, a quality Fenton usually brings to his work, and also a real reminder of the great British composers of the past couple of centuries - so few of whom are usually echoed in British film composers' writing, so it's great to hear.
The "Freshwater" episode features some wonderful opportunities for Fenton to score some of the planet's most spectacular sights, the great waterfalls, and he certainly doesn't disappoint with "Angel Falls" and "Iguacu", pieces of exquisite beauty. It is sumptuous, spectacular music, swelling with a grandiose quality reminiscent of Elgar. Sandwiched by those pieces is "River Predation", which opens with a lovely, flowing melody carried by flutes before the journey takes a more terrible turn signified by urgent, blaring brass - and finally the calm of a violin solo. "Mountains" featured one of the most talked-about tv moments last year, gratifyingly - the day after it aired, all people could talk about was "Did you see the snow leopard?" Hardly anyone alive has actually ever seen one, but the hardy cameraman spent months trying to locate one for the show, and finally did - and it produced a truly spectacular television sequence, as a mother tried to get food for herself and her starving kitten in the dreadful Himalayan conditions. Fenton's music for the scene ("The Snow Leopard") is perhaps the album's finest piece, so full of drama, of innocence for the baby, desperation for the mother, all infused with that ever-present sense of beauty. A little masterpiece all by itself (let alone in the middle of the other 130 minutes of music here). The drama continues in "The Karakoram", with spectacular modal music brilliantly capturing the remote mountain terrain including K2, something which continues in "The Earth's Highest Challenge", featuring a particularly noble spirit of adventure and courage.
The "Deserts" episode predictably introduces more exotic elements - "Desert Winds / The Locusts" sees the reintroduction of the duduk, which lends the music a spooky, ethereal quality which is just right - and Fenton adds to it with the detailed orchestration for winds which paints a colourful, vivid picture. After that frenzied piece, Fenton introduces another comical interlude with "Fly Catchers" which boasts the kind of gentle humour the composer has often used in his romantic comedy scores (of all places!) - and then more of the exotic music to round off the first disc in "Namibia - The Lions and the Oryx", one of the longer cues (at just over five minutes) and also one of the more dramatic.
The second disc opens with a suite from the wonderful "Great Plains" episode, which encompasses everything from the African savannah to the American prairie. Fenton's music is represented by "Plains High and Low", which begins with music similarly-crafted to the desert sequence before progressing to more beautiful harmonies and melodies; "The Wolf and the Caribou" encompasses action and a real spirit of adventure, with awestruck beauty and finally desperate tragedy - a wonderful example of a composer going through many emotions in a short space of time but producing a fluid, musical piece. "Shallow Seas" sees the composer revisiting similar territory to The Blue Planet, and indeed "Surfing Dolphins" is very similar to some of the more lighthearted material from that score, but it's a delightful little piece. "Dangerous Landing" scores one of the true highlights of the series as great white sharks are shown attacking seals making a perilous trek from the ocean to the shore - the shot of a great white in all its glory leaping from the water to grab a seal is one of the series' most striking (and there are dozens of striking shots in each episode, so that's saying something). Fenton scores it with a real dramatic intensity favouring powerful, snarling low brass and percussion. As usual on the album, intelligent sequencing sees this intense cue followed by a gentle one, "Mother and Calf - The Great Journey", which accompanies a pair of humpback whales on their massive journey from tropical waters to the Arctic - Fenton's hymnal, respectful music is yet another wonderful treat.
"Jungles" is scored with particularly florid, expressive music beautifully capturing the spirit of life under the canopy. Chimes and plucked strings are used to form the colourful atmosphere, joined in "Frog Ballet" by a charming synth croaking noise and beautiful female vocal line. This segues directly into "Jungle Falls", in which Fenton brings back the kind of dramatic majesty he employed for the earlier waterfall sequences. There's an almost mystical element to "Hunting Chimps", with Fenton creating a kind of otherworldly appreciation for the scene. It is back to more flowing music for "Seasonal Forests", including a gorgeous poem to the great giants of vegetation in "The Redwoods". "Fledglings" sees the British influence replaced by one bordering on Copland - and it's another impressive one. The beauty of "Seasonal Change" is more elegant and refined, with a touching violin solo one of the highlights of a piece of music which glistens with all the colours of the forest.
Fenton got another chance to revisit something he had done before in the "Ice Worlds" episode - he had previously written the score for David Attenborough's Life in the Freezer, a four-part chronicle of life in the Antarctic - but then he was restricted to all synths, so it's interesting to compare with his approach here. Unsurprisingly he homes in on the stark beauty of the place with cold harmonies supporting warm melodies - and the penguins provide the light relief, as they usually do, with a further opportunity for gentle comedy. "The Humpbacks' Bubblenet" is one of those hymnal pieces which feature in Planet Earth from time to time, a noble and at times mysterious piece. "Everything Leaves but the Emperors" covers the same material as March of the Penguins (which itself was inspired by Life in the Freezer - ah, the circle of life!) and Fenton's lovely lighthearted music is a real treat. "The Disappearing Sea Ice" scores the series' most stark and horrifying sequence, covering a polar bear forced to swim for day after day in search of food across the sea which, until a few years ago, was permanently frozen - he eventually finds a colony of walruses but is so exhausted by the time he gets there, he is unable to summon the strength to kill one and so dies - a fate awaiting his entire species within a few years unless the melting of the ice cap miraculously stops. Fenton's music is harrowing and haunting, perhaps the album's most affecting cue.
The music from the final episode, "Ocean Deep", sees Fenton employing comparatively dark music, for an episode visiting the vast area of our planet which is less-explored than the Moon, the bottom reaches of the oceans. With surprises aplenty, and so many extraordinary creatures living there which would beffudle even creative science fiction writers, Fenton still had the chance to sow a rich harvest of musical delights, even if perhaps the most attractive cue is "Life Near the Surface". The final cue, "The Choice is Ours", scores the impassioned plea at the end of the series for us to take care of the wonderful world around us, and Fenton's music is itself full of the same passion. It's a glorious way to end the album.
As you may have gathered from my departure from the usual four-paragraphs-and-a-witty-comment-or-two-which-aren't-actually-witty reviewing style, this is a rewarding album indeed. Even though it runs for over two hours, it is perfectly easy to sit and listen from start to end (when time permits) without getting bored or feeling the need to move on apart from just one or two short sections when there isn't quite enough variation of pace. A few years ago I showed my usual level of prescience when I said I thought Fenton was going to rise to the top of the Hollywood A-list (since I said it, he has barely scored a film which anyone actually saw) - but I'm not particularly bothered that it didn't come true if that's the reason he is able to invest such time and energy into these wonderful scores for the BBC. As with The Blue Planet and Deep Blue, a two-hour film based on this series is planned (I can't wait for the chance to see snow leopards and great white sharks and flying lemurs and Amur leopards on the big screen), and hopefully Fenton will again be able to paint on a slightly broader canvas and treat us with another album - but until then, I'm sure this album will continue to provide fresh treats with each new listen. Naturally, it comes highly-recommended by me - and if you decide to buy it, do yourself a favour and buy a copy of the DVD box set at the same time.