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Review by Brad Green:
Peter Weir makes cinematic images that stick in the mind inseparably from the music that attends them. How can we think of Picnic At Hanging Rock and that outcrop with the human-like facade, and not hear the tones of a pan flute? How can we think of Gallipoli with Mel Gibson always running, and not imagine him catching his breath to the pulse of Jean Michel Jarre’s Oxygene?

Master And Commander isn’t Weir’s best movie. For an adaptation from the books of Patrick O’Brian, possibly the world’s most highly regarded historical author, the screenplay’s characterisation and narrative development are surprisingly contrived. On the other hand, in typical Weir style there are frames that etch themselves indelibly in the memory, and music that is both integral to mise en scene and increases its dimensions.

The film leaves two contrasting and lasting impressions: a tall ship dwarfed by an unforgiving ocean, and intimate quarters in which the ship’s captain and surgeon take respite from their exacting duties with duets on violin and cello. The former is supported by an original score of dark strings and pounding drums, and the latter comprises selections from the baroque and classical repertoires including works by Mozart, Corelli, and Boccherini as well as traditional folk pieces.

The original music was written by a trio of Australians: former Icehouse frontman Iva Davies, Australian Chamber Orchestra leader Richard Tognetti and composer Christopher Gordon whose magnificent television scores of recent years have practically demanded an advancement to the big screen. With the exception of a Bach prelude performed by Yo-Yo Ma and an extant recording of Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia On A Theme By Thomas Tallis, the same trio were also responsible for arranging and producing the repertoire and folk pieces, and this affects a subtle congruity between the diegetic and external music.

The three Australians had previously collaborated on Ghost Of Time, a 20-minute piece that culminates in Davies’ iconic pop song Great Southern Land and which was originally commissioned for the Millennium Eve celebrations on Sydney Harbour. Weir assembled the same team and asked them to use the piece as the foundation of the soundtrack.

It is quite some time before the first music is heard in the movie, but from the set off we enter the world of an early nineteenth century naval vessel. Here the instruments of the atmosphere, the clouds and sea and air, make their own soundtrack as does the orchestra of the ship itself: its groaning ropes, pneumatic sails and creaking timber. When the score starts up its instruments seem like counterparts: the timbre of a violin string that resonates against its timber; electronic effects that howl like the wind and percussion that rolls like the waves. But more than this, the music thickens the atmosphere with a metaphorical layer. The relentless ensemble of taiko, bass and African drums establishes a constant call to war; the electronics create an alien milieu which reminds us that sailors so far from home were akin to astronauts in outer space; and fluttering string arpeggios, foreboding chords and transient swells of brass enshroud the English ship in a halo of tension and its French enemy in phantasmic mist.

If you haven’t seen the film, the temptation will be to skip past the original score material to the easy delights of Mozart and the Baroque masters. For this alone, the CD provides great value in the intimate arrangements and performances of these works. However, once you appreciate the context, a further reward is to be enjoyed by playing the album in its entirety. The tracks are ordered identically to the cues of the film, with the exception that the first and last are reversed. The circularity thus produced creates a timeless sense of history, and a vicarious experience that is the ultimate success of both the film and soundtrack. 

Published February 5, 2004

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TITLE: Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World
ID: 2894 53982
SCORE: Iva Davies; Christopher Gordon; Richard Tognetti
CONDUCTOR: Christopher Gordon
MUSIC EDIOTOR: Simon Leadley
SOURCE MUSIC: Mozart; Bach; Vaughan Williams; Areangelo Corelli; Luigi Boccherini 
FEATURED PERFORMERS: Richard Tognetti (violin); Yo-Yo Ma (cello); Michael Fisher (percussion)

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