Coastal Command/Williams

January 11, 2007


Coastal Command is a 1942 documentary produced by the Crown Film Unit for the Ministry of Information with full cooperation from both the Royal Air Force and Navy. While the film has become just another documentary film about World War II, the fine score from the master English composer Vaughan Williams is in fact the highlight of an otherwise dull documentary war film.

The score is divided into eight sections concert suite style, remastered and reworked by the late great Christopher Palmer who championed and reconstructed many works. From what I understand this work was originally put into some sort of a suite (7 movements) by another pioneer of film work Muir Mathieson who promoted some of the extremely fine work of the British film composers but to my knowledge none of this original material remains. Palmer has added the “U-Boat Alert” as the 8th part of the score. The only way to obtain the original soundtrack is by purchasing the VHS (No DVD to my knowledge). The material was originally recorded on 78’s by Muir and it is possible that some of this is still around but I suspect extremely difficult to obtain.

“Prelude” starts the suite off with a proud majestic theme followed by some excellent brass work from the horns, trumpets, and trombones. It has a little thematic touch to it but it is also wonderfully dissonant and brash in nature. “Hebrides” (islands off of Scotland) is very dark, mysterious featuring the reed section with the oboe sounding almost like a bagpipe. “U-Boat Alert”, part of a convoy sequence, features brass along with strings depicting the waves of the ocean as the ships are not only on guard but ready to attack. “Taking Off At Night” features one of the more neglected instruments, the bassoon, in harmony against the lonely music, quiet and very atmospheric in nature. “Hudsons Take Off From Iceland” is a hustle and bustle track almost reminding you of a busy street with cars, pedestrians, light signals all going on at the same time. “Dawn Patrol” makes excellent use of a solitary oboe to begin the track and then it becomes quite proud and patriotic building to a nice crescendo. “The Battle Of The Beauforts” features a lot of tension early on and then it is the battle with victory on the side of the Allies. The track features some wonderful horn harmony as does “Finale” which sums up the entire piece as one would do in the last movement of a symphony. Very well done and a work which overall has been quite overlooked and neglected.

There are at least three recordings to choose from and your decision as to which one to purchase will be based on what else would you like in addition to Coastal Command. If you are also interested in Scott of the Antarctic (perhaps Vaughan’s finest film work), the Chandos 10007 recording with Gamba and the BBC Philharmonic would be the one to get. The Marco Polo #8.223665 with Penny and the RTE Orchestra offers 49th Parallel & Story Of A Flemish Farm both excellent works and well worth having in your collection. The Silva recording with Alwyn and the Philharmonia Orchestra also offers a fine suite from the Oscar winning Red Shoes and the Bliss Conquest of the Air another interesting piece. The Silva (Film CD072) gets the nod from me if you are primarily interested in only the Coastal Command piece. The orchestra seems to be a bit more excited and into performing it (conductor?). Having said that, there is nothing wrong with either the Penny or the Gamba versions, they are just not quite to the Alwyn level and choosing either or both of them depending on what other holes need to be filled in the collection will not be a disadvantage. If money were no object all three of them would be welcome because of the additional material. This is a highly recommended score and again it is unfortunate that it has been lost except for the fine work of Christopher Palmer’s reconstruction.

Golden Score Rating (****)

Track Listing:

1. Prelude (1:23)

2. Hebrides (1:31)

3. U-Boat Alert (2:46)

4. Taking Off At Night (1:37)

5. Hudsons Take Off From Iceland (2:13)

6. Dawn Patrol (4:15)

7. The Battle of the Beauforts (3:28)

8. Finale (3:56)




One Response to “Coastal Command/Williams”

  1. eyeresist Says:

    I’ve been looking for a comparison of the three recordings of Coastal Command, and your seems to be the only one in existence, so thanks very much! My search was prompted by my dissatisfaction with the Penny recording on Marco Polo, which seems to have been done in a rush, and in slightly strange (over-bright) sound. I was also disappointed with the bitty approach when a broader view of the suite would be more effective; in particular, the gong at the end of Dawn Patrol is silenced at the end of the track, when it would have been more effective to let it trail away, possibly even into the beginning of the Battle sequence. Thanks again.

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