I have been waiting
some thirty years for the appearance of this CD - and especially
for the suite from Williamson’s opera Our Man in Havana.
This is based on Graham Greene’s ‘entertainment’ - Greene’s
quaint name for his lighter novels - of the same name. This
was performed at the last night of the 1976 Promenade Concerts
conducted by Sir Charles Groves at London’s Royal Albert Hall.
It caused a sensation with the televised audience, for they
began dancing to Williamson’s catchy Latin-American rhythms.
In fact as Lewis Foreman rightly observes Our Man in Havana
has surely been one of the most purely enjoyable British operas
of the last forty years.
for Our Man in Havana is very cinematic. In fact one
could be forgiven for wishing it had been used in Carol Reed’s
1959 film of Greene’s darkly comic book. The film starred Alec
Guinness and Noel Coward and was all about a bumbling vacuum
cleaner salesman (Guinness) who becomes involved in espionage
with tragic consequences. How that film would have been enhanced
with Williamson’s music rather than that provided by the Hermanos
Deniz Cuban Rhythm Band! Listen to the heroic music of the Finale,
for instance; it could have been penned by Max Steiner, in fact
it is remarkably like Steiner’s heroic theme from Key Largo
(and Key Largo, of the Florida Keys, of course is just
across the water from Cuba).
This memorable suite
includes a haunting waltz and some cleverly produced Hoffnung-like
vacuum cleaner simulated noises in the orchestra. We must not
forget that it also contains music of considerable menace as
well as the captivating Latin material that persists in the
head for days.
So far so very good
- but the problem I have is that this not over-generous first
collection of Malcolm Williamson music seems over-repetitive
in its styles and basic materials. Very much in the same sardonic
vein and easy Latin-style of Our Man in Havana, for instance,
is Williamson’s 1956 Overture: Santiago de Espada.
This offers up Latin style music contrasted with an English
folksong-like section first wistful then breezily syncopated.
There’s a heroic/patriotic final peroration.
If Our Man in
Havana recollects the film music of Max Steiner, then the
bleak staccato chords of the opening movement of Williamson’s
Concerto Grosso (1965) recalls a trenchant Bernard Herrmann
in Psycho mode. Quoting Lewis Foreman’s notes, “Consciously
incorporating into it elements of the concerto style of the
eighteenth century, the composer tells us that his work is ‘laid
out to exhibit in turn the strings, brass, percussion and woodwind
of a large orchestra’.” The short second movement is another
darkly menacing episode with some witty interjections for brass
and an array of percussion. Strings scamper merrily through
the Presto vivace final movement and we are in raucous
commedia dell’arte territory.
(1965) developed from ballet music he had composed, begins with
a deeply morose Prelude. The mood of the second movement (Toccata.
Allegro) lightens a shade and the pace quickens through
the Toccata. It then picks up an even faster tempo as the music
moves towards the farcical. The Ravelian Elegy. Grave
is the most interesting movement. It’s notable for a cello line
with odd dissonances, giving way to a mournful flute which meanders
below high-pitched violins. The mood is quite Oriental before
staccato brass and marimba chords disturb the calm. A Tarantella,
Presto movement brings the work to a joyful conclusion.
The catchy haunting
music for Our Man in Havana makes this CD a must for
lovers of lighter music but a not over-generously filled album
with music of limited musicality might make others pause.
see also Review
by Rob Barnett