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Comments about the soundtrack for The Blue Planet (George Fenton)

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Thoughtful and Potent
• Posted by: Giv   <Send E-Mail>
• Date: Monday, November 8, 2010, at 5:38 p.m.
• IP Address:

From the opening bars, we are transported to another world... I once read these words, verbatim, used to describe "The Swan of Tuonela" by Jean Sibelius. "The Blue Planet" deserves the same description; Magdalen College Choir's ethereal vocalisation of mystery and majesty lead us into a truly spine-tingling and awe-inspiring opening theme; although religion is never mentioned in Sir David Attenborough's wonderful narration, something suggestive of the glory of creation in its infinite variety is definitely present in the opening theme. The main theme may recur many times throughout this album, in one form or another, but I enjoy the use of the leitmotif; there are in fact several main motifs running throughout Fenton's towering score and this serves to bind the album into a whole. Most satisfactorily, in fact, to the ears of this listener.
The following "Sardine Run" introduces a thrilling theme that will be echoed later in "Baitball" - the two themes may be different but rhythmically they are related - and this is most appropriate considering the nature of the events being described in each piece. In the latter work we also hear hints of the nerve-shredding theme from "Sharks" being deployed as larger predators intervene and ensure the shoal's annihilation.
Fear and danger from predators come to the fore once again in the terrifying but ultimately uplifting "Emperors", which is one of the truly great pieces on the album. Deadly Leopard Seals (heard in the opening theme) lurk to take the unwary and unlucky from the group of desperate penguins, beautifully rendered on land through the xylophone, and in the water with the swelling, graceful string theme as their stoic determination ultimately sees them through to safety.
Once we get past the grand and beautiful primary themes of the larger orchestral pieces, this album is at heart raw, force-of-nature tone-poetry which I feel inherits something from Sibelius' wilderness-inspired canon.
When one listens to "Frozen Oceans", "Stingrays" and "Elephant Seal march" one may detect at once something enticing and enthralling, yet deeply unsettling and cold; almost alien and unwelcoming. A strange juxtaposition of responses, but they are there nonetheless and it's a clever trick which Fenton has pulled off remarkably well.
The so-called 'lesser themes' - that is to say, those describing the smaller invertebrate creatures - have been described in less flattering terms and it has been suggested that the electronic and acoustic elements may be divisive amongst listeners. This may be true, in part at least, but I only find two tracks ("Thimble Jellyfish" and "Surfing Snails") to be somewhat incongruous and would still recommend such a track as "The Deep Ocean" to any potential listener for its considerable compositional and structural merit - within it one can almost hear the Choir's voices echoed in a most eerie way through the synthesizer effects as we go deeper into the piece (the movie "The Abyss" suggests itself)... the listener becomes increasingly disoriented until the quiet beauty of the coda, when we are left with little option than to appreciate the wonder and beauty of the alien world into which we have sunk.
Nor should one overlook the exquisite miniature "Coral Wonder". The opening bars of this gem are slightly discordant and harmonically static in the manner of Sibelius' "Tapiola", yet sweetly lulling and the piece gently moves into a soothing lullaby that reminds this listener of Holst's "Venus" with its tranquil beauty.
Throughout the album, we have indeed been on an epic journey and the finale "Killer Whales", although accompanying a filmed sequence of almost unimaginable brutality, allows us to experience a moment of intellectual revelation as we finally understand that the ferocious power of nature is not merely arbitrary but can demonstrate to us all something about ourselves; like the whales, we too are intelligent but capable of terrible things which lurk deep inside us. Thus, we take a lesson away with us as the album closes with the final majestic theme capped by a note of gentle optimism.
Overall, this is a work of great compositional skill and correctly deserves to be described as a masterpiece. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

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