April 2006 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Michael McLennan
Managing Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster: Len Mullenger

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Malcolm Williamson: Orchestral Works, Vol. 1  
Music composed by Malcolm Williamson
Conducted by Rumon Gamba
Performed by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra
Our Man in Havana (Suite from the opera) (1963/66) [20:19]
Santiago de Espada (1956) [6:08]
Concerto Grosso (1965) [10:49]
Sinfonietta (1965) [19:42]
  Available on Chandos (CHAN 10359)
Running Time: 57:13

See also:

  • Malcolm Williamson: 70th Birthday Tribute
  • Malcolm Williamson - Complete works for Piano
  • 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 been. 

    Ian Lace

    Our Man in Havana: 5
    Other works: 3

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