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Richard HARVEY (b.1953) Plague and the Moonflower – an oratorio with libretto by Ralph Steadman (1989)
Ben Kingsley - Narrator; Ian Holm - The Plague Demon; Penelope Wilton - The voice of Margaret Mee
Kym Amps (soprano); Eamonn O’Dwyre (treble); John Williams (guitar); Richard Studt (violin); Roger Chase (viola)
Choir of New College Oxford, New London Children’s Choir; English Chamber Choir; orchestra/Richard Harvey
rec. CTS Studios, Wembley, 1999 ALTUS ALU0001CD [68:32]
The oratorio Plague and the Moonflower was commissioned by Richard Gregson-Williams in 1989 for the Exeter Festival. It jointly celebrates the millennium and the work of the English artist Margaret Mee (1909–1988), renowned for her paintings of Amazon forest fauna.
The oratorio draws us inside a world uneasy with itself. All around, there is evidence of rivers and oceans soured, lands blighted and a creation sapped and tainted by the Plague Demon, the dark and grasping side of man’s flawed nature. As the Plague Demon turns his attention to the lush, fragile forests of the Amazon a transformation occurs. Suddenly and unexpectedly, he sees and falls in love with the Moonflower, a strange, magical cactus that flowers just once a year. This beautiful, frail plant survives in the deep rain forest - a powerful icon of purity and love. The Plague Demon changes his tune; a corner has been turned and the pulse of life reasserts itself. This leads on to a dramatic climax in which the millennium marks a critical moment and a chance to rebuild spoilt lives and reshape Man’s place in the world.
So in terms of its message this is very much an oratorio for the Green Party but what does it sound like? Well, to be honest, I absolutely loved it. This is unpretentious, tuneful and uplifting music brimming with catchy tunes. Those who enjoy the Lord of the Rings film scores, the music of Karl Jenkins and Einhorn’s Voices of Light will be in safe territory here. The nearest piece in concept, message and sheer catchiness that I have encountered is the wonderful school musical One Sun One World by composer Peter Rose and librettist Anne Conlon written to mark the 50th anniversary of the WWF.
Richard Harvey is well known for his film and television music and that is reflected in this piece. The orchestra is crammed full of star names and the regular symphonic roster is augmented by other instruments that include synthesiser, harmonium, mandolin, alto flute and accordion. There are also key roles for the piano and the classical guitar. The orchestration is lush and cinematic.
Courtesy of Youtube you can even sample Plague and the Moonflowerhere and Nimbus also offers potential buyers the chance to hear samples of this CD online.
The opening Prologue starts mysteriously and the excellent Ben Kingsley then sets the scene of a world being poisoned. The Intrada takes us back to Elizabethan times and Harvey presents us with his first catchy tune played on a Gabrieli-style brass ensemble and then on guitar and strings. This theme gradually transforms into a lively dance that has more than a hint of a Scots reel to it. That’s two great tunes already and we’ve only heard the first six minutes of the oratorio. More lush, tuneful music is to follow until we get to Demon Dance with its virtuoso violin solo and a quite hammy Hammer Horror organ entry at the end. Ian Holm now brings a “behind the sofa” moment or two to the proceedings with his evil, chilling and blood-curdling incantation. Peace is restored in Ancient Lands featuring the brilliant John Williams on guitar. This ruminating solo could have been taken from a Mike Oldfield album. Plague and the Moonflower is a graceful Amazonian soundscape with the sounds of nature and some lovely solo work from strings and winds. The Plague Demon then transforms and rekindles ancient dreams — very movingly done — and the opening Elizabethan brass tune from Intrada is brought back in the Chorale and Epilogue. In this clever musical twist by the composer the natural world has somehow turned full circle and returned to normality. One is tempted to say “they all lived happily ever after”. By way of a postscript, the last movement Finale-Réjouissance tops and tails the work triumphantly by re-introducing the second great tune I mentioned earlier: the dancing theme from the Intrada.
The performance is superbly atmospheric and the sound is big and bold. Turn it up and wallow in the impact produced by the splendid sonics. The recordng has been produced by the composer and the engineer was Austin Ince. The de luxe packaging involves a lavish booklet with a complete libretto and page after page of beautiful artwork by Ralph Steadman. When I received this CD and saw the word plague in its title I was expecting an hour of grimness. It turned out to be just the opposite.