Classical CDs Weekly: The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Thelonious Monk | Classical music reviews, news & interviews
Classical CDs Weekly: The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Thelonious Monk
The songs do not remain the same: classical reinterpretations
We go out of this column's comfort zone for this week’s releases which include orchestrated versions of songs by the Fab Four, and an Italian pianist’s imaginative response to jazz god Thelonious Monk. And there’s also some Led Zeppelin played by a string quartet.
The Beatles for Orchestra: Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Davis (Carl Davis Collection)
New York-born composer and conductor Carl Davis has been working in the UK since 1960. He’s best known for his film and television music – notably the BBC’s 1996 Pride and Prejudice, for which he provided a near-perfect pastiche classical score. Davis is a skilled, imaginative orchestrator and arranger, so it’s a disappointment to find out that all he does here is conduct, with the songs reworked by other hands. They don’t always survive the lavish attention thrown at them; without the lyrics there are times when it’s like being trapped in a lift with the complete works of James Last and Ray Conniff. George Martin’s original productions could be extravagant, but he recognised the value of restraint. Which is not to say that large chunks of this disc aren’t cheesily enjoyable, and in most cases the melodic material is so strong and distinctive that The Beatles usually end up winning through.
"Yellow Submarine" sounds effective played as a Sousa march, and "Strawberry Fields" segues neatly into "Penny Lane", with Rhys Owen’s trumpet solo every bit as good as David Mason’s was on the original. Owens is also excellent in "The Long and Winding Road". "Norwegian Wood"’s Mantovani-style strings are effective, and you’d have to be a curmudgeon to resist the cocktail lounge smoochiness of "And I Love Her". Nice trombones in "Twist and Shout", but as a rule it’s the slower, more introspective songs which work best. Unpretentious fun.
The Music of Led Zeppelin: Kazda & Indigo Strings (Phil Harmonie)
Orchestrated Beatles hits… and now it’s Led Zeppelin on string quartet and electric bass. I came to this disc with extremely low expectations, shuddering at the memory of a cringeworthy rendition of "Purple Haze" played by the Kronos Quartet many years ago. Bassist Jan Kazda wisely avoids dutiful transcription, and while the results don’t succeed on all levels, these versions are quirkier and more idiomatic-sounding than one would expect. Kazda compares his efforts with those of jazz musicians interpreting the Great American Songbook, reworking the songs in his own idiom. This can mean underplaying the raw excitement of Jimmy Page and John Bonham at full pelt – try comparing Kazda’s version of "Immigrant Song" with the original and it’s a bit like sipping camomile tea when you’re expecting strong lager.
What a small, tight string group can do is illuminate the surprisingly complex harmonic twists which are otherwise easily missed. If it weren’t for the presence of the electric bass, "Black Dog"’s chord progressions could sound like something weighty composed by an Estonian holy Minimalist. "Whole Lotta Love" can’t help prompting a raised eyebrow when the Top of the Pops riff blasts out on cello, but you giggle with it, not at it. And "Stairway to Heaven" is treated with quiet reverence and ends up sounding rather touching, Kazda’s skills turning a potentially disastrous project into a minor triumph.
‘Round Midnight - Hommage to Thelonius Monk Emanuele Arciuli (piano) (Stradivarius)
In the year 2000, Italian pianist Emanuele Arciuli commissioned an eclectic selection of contemporary American composers to write a series of pieces taking Thelonius Monk’s ‘Round Midnight as their starting point, and most of the results are on this disc, taken from live performances in 2002 and 2004. Most sets of musical variations are based on simple, direct material. Monk’s standard is the opposite; it’s sinuous, harmonically complex, and so well known as to present a daunting challenge to any composer daring to tamper with it. The most successful pieces on this disc don’t refer to the source too directly; the responses derive from the harmonies, intervals and mood found in the original.
Some of the results are stunning; Fred Hersch’s beautiful "Little Midnight Nocturne" the highlight of the first part of the work. Frederic Rzewski’s Variation spreads hints of Monk’s melody over the piano’s entire range. Felippo Del Corno’s "Precious Time" slowly reconstructs it, before Michael Torke’s exhilarating, brashly enjoyable piece brings us back into daylight. Michael Daugherty’s breezy "Monk in the Kitchen" (Monk's piano was in his kitchen) is another highlight, but you sense that Arciuli feels happiest when he’s prowling in the shadows, as in John Harbison’s "Monk Trope". Joel Hoffman’s "Cadenza" and "Finale" close the work in an emotionally satisfying way – the pace slowing as we return to the mood of Monk’s theme. Arciuli’s sensitive playing is beyond reproach. One for jazz buffs and contemporary music fans.
Watch Emanuele Arciuli play Thelonious Monk
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