I have been waiting some 30 years for the appearance of this
CD – for the suite from Williamson’s opera based on Graham Greene’s
‘entertainment’ Our Man in Havana (Greene’s quaint name for his lighter
novels). 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 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).
So why am I including operatic music on a site devoted to
film music? Well firstly it is very cinematic music. 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). Then one remembers Carol Reed’s 1959 film of Greene’s darkly comic book that
starred Alec Guinness and Noel Coward 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! This suite
includes a haunting waltz and some cleverly produced Hoffnung-like vacuum
cleaner simulated noises in the orchestra as well as music of menace and the
captivating Latin stuff that persists in the head for days.
If Our Man in Havana recollects 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 del’arte territory.
Very much in the same sardonic vein and easy Latin-style of Our
Man in Havana, is Williamson’s 1956 Overture Santiago de Espada. Latino
style is contrasted with an English folksong-like section, first wistful then
breezily syncopated, before a heroic/patriotic final peroration.
Williamson’ Sinfonietta (1965) begins with a deeply
morose Prelude that had originally been used by the Royal Ballet Touring
Company. The mood of Toccata-Allegro lightens a shade and the pace
quickens through the Toccata, then even faster as the music touches the
farcical. Here the album disappoints somewhat – the clever orchestrations are
about all that’s truly compelling here. The Ravelian Elegy-Grave is the
most interesting movement, a cello line with the odd dissonances, giving way to
a mournful flute meandering below high pitched violins. The mood is quite
Oriental before staccato brass and marimba chords disturb the calm. Tarantella-Presto
brings the work to a joyful conclusion.
Our Man in Havana – great film music that might have
Our Man in Havana: 5
Other works: 3