Monday, 18 August 2008

CATERINA VALENTE: The Breeze And I


"Rock Around The Clock" was one thing - or at least it would be before 1955 was out - but this still feels astonishingly radical for a 1955 top five hit. Admittedly there may have been the faint air of travel agent exoticism as a reason for despoiled British record buyers to buy into it, and at times one can easily visualise Morecambe and Wise bounding onstage in their frilly shirts, comedy sombreros and overactive castanets.

But that cheapens an extraordinary record for which I can find no proper comparison in its peers; it was orchestrated by Werner Muller from a 1929 piano piece called "Andalucia," written by the Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona, a man to whom even Ravel bowed. A breeze? Muller's strings and aggressive post-Kenton brass make it sound like a terminal hurricane, swirling gales almost beyond tonality, smashing up against stone or iron gates; Valente's voice laments on a distant volcanotop like a rather distressed Yma Sumac.

After one final non-tonal trumpet scream, however, the song itself gently emerges, although the whirligig of strings never lets up in its comments, Valente nobly battling the elements as she sings of love lost and hopes torn - her swooning regret on the "care" of "you no longer care" would have been sufficient to refloat the Titanic - with an echoing pride which puts me in mind of some of the early Gerry Anderson puppet show closing themes (especially "Aqua Marina" from Stingray); she covers four-and-something octaves so silkily you only notice and count them after she's done, but her "strange, mournful tune" indicates that, devastated as her world is, she will survive, as the orchestra sweeps back in for a final imperious snarl.

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