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Richard HARVEY (b.1953) Plague and the Moonflower – an Oratorio, with libretto by Ralph Steadman
Ben Kingsley (narrator), Ian Holm (Plague Demon), Penelope Wilton (voice of Margaret Mee), Kym Amps (soprano), John Williams (classical guitar), Eamonn O’Dwyre (treble voice), Richard Studt (violin), Roger Chase (viola)
Choir of New College Oxford/Edward Higginbottom, New London Children’s Choir/Ronald Corp, English Chamber Choir/Guy Protheroe), orchestra/Richard Harvey
rec. 1999, CTS Studios, Wembley, UK; overdubs recorded at Snake Ranch Studios, Chelsea and at The River, Kensington ALTUS ALU0001 [68:32]
Richard Harvey is an English composer of enormous experience, especially in the fields of film and television music. He wrote, for example, music for Tales of the Unexpected for ITV back in the 1970s, and more recently, for The Da Vinci Code. He is also an immensely accomplished practical musician, proficient on a number of instruments, and was a member for some years of the folk-rock band Gryphon.
Plague and the Moonflower dates from the late 1990s, and is best described as an ‘environmental cantata’. At the start, the various musical forces, along with narrator Ben Kingsley, set the scene: our beautiful planet is beset by man-made problems, personified by Ian Holm’s Plague Demon. This character softens and relents after coming into contact with the rare and beautiful Moonflower, a plant found in Central and South America, and famous for flowering at night and just once a year – an attribute that gives it an almost legendary quality.
This recording, made originally back in 1999, brings together an impressive array of musical and dramatic talent. Ben Kingsley, Penelope Wilton and Ian Holm are all ‘household names’ owing to their appearances on the small screen. Guitarist John Williams and highly respected string players Richard Studt and Roger Chase are all big names in the musical world. Then there are the three outstanding choirs, plus an orchestra made up of such stars as trumpeter Maurice Murphy (now sadly deceased) and horn player Frank Lloyd.
There are parts, too, for more unusual instruments, such as mandolin, charango, zamponas (Pan flutes of the Andes), and even an electric trumpet. All of these contribute to an exceptionally rich musical palette, which Harvey deploys resourcefully in telling his story.
The key to the style of the music is really the composer’s background in the movies; not only in terms of the direct appeal of the music with its powerful rhythms and attractive melodies, but also because of the way the sound has been balanced and mixed. The outcome gives the whole thing a sonic depth which is impressive but which is also highly artificial. This aspect took me a little getting used to. In the ‘classical’ field, we’re used to recording producers doing everything they can to make us forget they exist, to produce a sound which is that of an idealised concert-hall. Richard Harvey and his engineers are not too concerned about that; instruments with important solos are projected right into the foreground, while much effective use is made of ‘lontano’ effects, as for example the mysterious distant trumpet (an electric one?) in track 4, ‘Deserts of the Nile’.
What of the style of the music? To call it ‘eclectic’ would be a prize understatement. Ralph Vaughan Williams, Steve Reich, John Dowland, are just three of the names that come to mind. It’s also fair to say that if you liked ‘Riverdance’, or are a fan of Karl Jenkins, you will probably find the music to your taste. This probably makes it sound like a horrendous mish-mash, which it is not. This music is skilfully put together, tuneful and kaleidoscopically varied in its tone-colours.
I found it enjoyable, though, in the end, the story-line is trite and over-generalised, so that I found it hard to get truly emotionally involved, despite the brilliance of all the contributors. It is always blindingly clear that a ‘point’ is being made, rather than a story being told, and therein lies its weakness. However, the whole enterprise remains a significant achievement, and there’s no doubting the impact of elements such as the words of Margaret Mee – famous for her wonderful paintings of the flowers of the Amazon forests – at the moment when the Plague Demon encounters the Moonflower.
The text set by Richard Harvey is by Ralph Steadman, and one of the great attractions of this issue is the accompanying booklet, which not only gives all the words but interleaves them with beautiful illustrations by Steadman – worth the price of the disc in themselves.