Santiago de Espada Overture
Our Man in Havana Suite
Iceland Symphony Orchestra
Recorded 13-16 June 2005 in the Háskólabíó, Iceland
Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood
Reviewed: April 2006
CD No: CHANDOS CHAN 10359
Duration: 57 minutes
This is the first volume in Chandos’s new series devoted to the orchestral music of Australia-born Malcolm Williamson (1931-2003), the Master of the Queen’s music from 1975.
Concentrating on the 1950s and 1960s, Chandos has chosen Williamson writing in traditional forms as well as taking full opportunity to make things go with a swing in the suite from his opera based on Graham Greene’s novel “Our Man in Havana”. This premiere recording finds Rumon Gamba’s experience with film music standing him in good stead, although initially the Cuban dance has a muddled rhythm before finding its feet. The discords with which the ‘Passacaglia’ opens could have done with a touch more humour perhaps, but the finale features a most affecting melody given appropriate room in a chorale-like treatment.
Williamson is a melodic composer, keen to leave listeners with a tune in their head, and in this respect he succeeds handsomely, not least in Santiago de Espada, which Gamba conducts with a grace and sweep that Sir Adrian Boult, the overture’s dedicatee, would surely have approved of – a very attractive opener to the disc.
The other two works are in a more ‘serious’ form and both are revealed to be models of neatness and economy. Concerto grosso in particular receives a notable performance, the lower strings swinging into action with intent in the opening Allegro, Gamba cleverly keeping the potentially thick texture free of clutter while the finale is light-hearted and well pointed too, some impressive melodic interplay achieved between strings and woodwind.
The Sinfonietta, dedicated to Williamson’s daughter Clare, has a balletic quality in the Prelude, and like the Concerto Grosso highlights the orchestral sections. Gamba’s opening is a touch ponderous but nonetheless generates some momentum for the ensuing ‘Toccata’ to capitalise on, strings leading off with greater purpose. This generally more-severe piece has its heart in the ‘Elegy’, with a profound passage of chorale writing for strings that recalls Martinů and which leads to a fraught climax. The final ‘Tarantella’ encapsulates the whole – detailed, committed playing and the flair that this music thrives on. Recording quality and orchestral playing are both excellent.