Classical Beatles

Copyright © Fred Flaxman, 1997

Like Gershwin and Schubert before them, Paul McCartney and John Lennon were able to turn out one beautiful tune after another. But the Beatles' singing and the rock style of their songs have kept many classical music lovers -- myself among them -- from enjoying these great melodies. No longer.

Lately there have been so many classical treatments of Beatles music released on CDs that I have been able to devote a small section of my CD collection to them. My two favorites so far are "Ofra Harnoy & The Orford String Quartet Play The Beatles" (Fanfare DFCD-6002) and "Norwegian Wood," with the Trio Rococo (RCA 74321-92488-2).

When I hear "Eleanor Rigby," "Michelle" and "Yesterday" performed in a classical manner with a superb string quartet and cello soloist, I realize how important to me acoustical instruments are. I have never been able to appreciate the sound of electric guitars, synthesizers, or the Beatles vocal chords. The harpsichord, the organ and the bagpipes are the only acoustical instruments which affect me in a similar manner, driving me up the wall and out of the room faster than Rachmaninov could play his transcription of Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumblebee."

Doug Riley's romantic arrangements for Ofra Harnoy and the Orford String Quartet bring out the beauty of ten Lennon-McCartney tunes plus one ("Something") by George Harrison. The CD goes by very fast: (1) because I enjoy it, and (2) because, unfortunately, it is only 33 minutes long! Why didn't they "classify" another 33 minutes of Beatles tunes and give us a 66-minute CD for the same price?

The combination of instruments used on the "Norwegian Wood" album is more unusual, and most aesthetically appealing. The Trio Rococo, a Danish group, consists of Niels Eje, oboe and oboe d'amore; Inge Mulvad, cello; and Berit Spaelling, harp. They play with soft enthusiasm and understated emotions. The results are impressionistic and relaxing.

This album, which lasts a respectable, if not overly generous, 55 minutes, also starts with "Eleanor Rigby" and contains "Yesterday," "Michelle, "Here, There and Everywhere," "In My Life," "And I Love Her" (a harp solo), and "The Fool on the Hill." There is, likewise, only one George Harrison tune, but this time it's "Here Comes the Sun." Additional Lennon-McCartney songs here include "Because," "Day Tripper," "Blackbird," "For No One," "All My Loving," "I Am the Walrus," "She's Leaving Home" and, of course, "Norwegian Wood."

Somewhat less successful, in my opinion, are the three other CDs I'm going to mention here: "While My Guitar Gently Weeps: Beatles Hits Performed on Classical Guitar," performed by Elias Barreiro (Intersound Fanfare 3536), "From Yesterday to Penny Lane" (Spartacus 22301), and the new release from Philips (314-528-922-2) misleadingly titled "Paul McCartney: The Family Way, Variations Concertantes, Op. 1."

Although "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" is performed on an acoustic guitar, it sounds as though it were a mechanical instrument played by a computerized robot -- all the notes are there and they are all correct, but where's the human emotion? I find this disc flat, boring and disappointing. I had thought classical guitar transcriptions of Beatles tunes was a good idea. It may be, but you wouldn't know it from this performance or these arrangements.

"From Yesterday to Penny Lane" is a Mexican recording featuring the Sinfonica Nacional de Cuba performing the Suite for Guitar and Orchestra arranged by Leo Brouwer from seven Lennon-McCartney songs, plus six short, non-Beatles pieces written or arranged by Brouwer and others. The brief program notes are in Spanish only. The arrangements of everything on this CD are a bit too Mantovani-ish for my taste, but the "Suite for Guitar and Orchestra" makes pleasant, if not exciting, listening.

The new Philips release is a blatant, commercial attempt to exploit the Paul McCartney name, which wouldn't be too troublesome if the CD were worth purchasing anyway. But it is not.

In 1966 Paul McCartney composed the soundtrack for a totally forgotten movie called "The Family Way." Canadian guitarist Carl Aubut was asked to prepare a new recording of the classical tracks from this score, a task he describes in the program notes as "difficult" because "the length of the tracks -- sometimes only ten or 15 seconds long -- made it difficult for the average listener to appreciate"

Aubut's solution to this problem was to take a McCartney theme from the filmscore and write a set of variations for guitar, flute, clarinet and string quartet. The result, unfortunately, is a rather tedious repetition of the very short McCartney theme throughout nine uninspired, uninteresting, unimaginative variations.

If presented more honestly, this CD would have been titled "Variations on a Theme by Paul McCartney" by George Martin and Carl Aubut. These two are given credit for arrangements and orchestration within the program notes but not on the CD's cover. There Paul McCartney's name is what stands out in large type, followed by the name of the piece and the extra-deceptive "Opus 1," giving consumers the false impression that this was McCartney's first attempt at composing classical music. It wasn't _his_ attempt at all, and it wasn't his _first_, which, I suppose, was his "Liverpool Oratorio." Then, too, he had plenty of help putting that work together, since McCartney, for all his talent, can't read or write music, much less orchestrate it.

The Philips CD also contains three other minor works that don't pretend to be by Paul McCartney, none of which would ever sell in any quantity if his name were not prominently displayed on the cover.

Come to think of it, this album really should have been called: "Paul McCartney: Let the Buyer Beware -- Variations Concertantes and Other Music for Cash Register, Consumer, and Orchestra of Thieves" by Philips Marketing. That, at least, would have been calling a spade a spade.

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