About this Recording
8.574078 - BEATLES GO BAROQUE, VOL. 2 (Peter Breiner and His Orchestra)

Beatles Go Baroque • 2

With Beatles Go Baroque • 2—and, for that matter, with its predecessors in Peter Breiner’s stylistically expansive catalogue, Beatles Go Baroque and its close relation, Elvis Goes Baroque—we have not only a delightful series of crosscentury mashups, but also an opportunity to test a notion that a growing number of musicians have come to believe in.

To state it most plainly, in a quotation attributed variously to Duke Ellington, Richard Strauss and Louis Armstrong: ‘There are only two kinds of music—good music, and bad music.’

For Peter Breiner, the good music category includes not only the great classics and contemporary scores, but also the best popular music. Specifically, in the case of the present recording, that means the music of two 18th-century masters, Johann Sebastian Bach and Antonio Vivaldi, on one hand, and songs by The Beatles (John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr are all represented here as composers) on the other.

The connections between The Beatles and classical music go back to The Beatles era itself, probably because classical musicians have always recognised the inherent musicality and originality of The Beatles’ songs. Leonard Bernstein declared the Lennon-McCartney composing team ‘the Schuberts of our time’ as far back as 1964, and around the same time, Leopold Stokowski declared that he saw some value in their work as well.

Peter Breiner’s Beatles-and-Baroque experiments began in 1983, when Bohdan Warchal, the legendary founder and conductor of the Slovak Chamber Orchestra, asked him to write an encore piece for the ensemble. Breiner responded by taking five Beatles songs and creating a Baroque concerto grosso.

The piece was a hit with the orchestra and its audiences, and soon the Capella Istropolitana, led by Libor Pešek (who was then the music director of The Beatles’ hometown orchestra, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra) made a radio recording, which in turn led to Beatles Seasons—an EMI collection in which the label, strangely, abandoned Breiner’s carefully-considered concerti grossi concept, taking apart each suite and presenting the tracks willy-nilly.

That was put right when Breiner remade the set for Naxos as Beatles Go Baroque, released in 1992 with Breiner’s track order restored. The appeal of Breiner’s arrangements, to say nothing of his evident love and knowledge of The Beatles canon, was clear: the album soon went multi-platinum. Returning for a second volume, Breiner did not want to simply repeat the original album’s idea of taking Beatles tunes and cloaking them in Baroque garb, with Bach, Handel and Vivaldi as stylistic templates. This time, he was determined to match The Beatles’ compositions to beloved works by Bach, and movements from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, and to keep the Baroque originals largely intact. The Beatles, Bach and Vivaldi move in and out of the spotlight, in the spirit of a true 21st-century mashup.

There is often more here than meets the eye. The opening movement of Breiner’s Beatlised version of Bach’s Keyboard Concerto No. 1, BWV 1052—heard here with the piano as the solo instrument—takes its themes from Come Together, a song John Lennon began as a presidential campaign song for the LSD avatar Timothy Leary—but it also looks back at one The Beatles’ own inspirations, Chuck Berry (whose publisher sued Lennon for copyright infringement because of similarities in the lyrics to Berry’s You Can’t Catch Me). Beyond that, though, the verses of the song are virtually spoken, in a repeating four-note motif. You see something similar in the third movement, where Breiner draws on the Lennon-McCartney song Drive My Car, in which the first three lines of the verse rest on a single note, with variation held off until the final line—and then a bluesy refrain, accompanied by thoroughly Bachian string figuration.

So total up what you have in these outer movements: Bach’s Concerto asserts itself regularly, The Beatles’ tunes are heard clearly, there’s a hint of Chuck Berry, some protominimalism, and a hint of how Bach might have handled a blues turn. Where, you may ask, is the Beatles’ great melodic gift? Listen to the slow movement, where McCartney’s graceful Blackbird soars over the dark contours of Bach’s chromatic accompaniment, first in a straightforward piano reading, then as a dialogue between piano and violin and finally in a stylishly embellished form.

Breiner delays Bach’s appearance in the first movement of the Violin Concerto No. 1, BWV 1041, in favour of a cello turn based on the between-the-lines bass guitar turn in I Want to Hold Your Hand—the melody of which suits the Baroque style so perfectly that Breiner subjects its opening line to a series of modulations that become a convincingly Bachian sequence. The cellos take a prominent role in the finale, as well, playing the riff that defines Day Tripper even more than its melody—but reconfigured here as semiquaver triplets. Sharp-eared listeners will also hear a quick hint of You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away as a brisk figure between the verses. For the central slow movement, Breiner lets Bach’s sweetly-turned violin theme morph into Harrison’s Something—here fitted out with some glissandi and bent notes.

Another Harrison tune—the exquisitely melancholy While My Guitar Gently Weeps—animates the central movement of Breiner’s reconfigured Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, BWV 1047. Mostly, it is heard as a secondary theme, against the native Bach melody, but it makes its mark. The surrounding movements draw on Lennon’s introspective Nowhere Man, played by the winds and brasses, and McCartney’s jaunty Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, with its raucous piano introduction amusingly transferred to the harpsichord.

Breiner’s use of Beatle sources for his recasting of the Vivaldi is quite adventurous. Who would have thought that the grand ternary composition A Day in the Life could have been made to fit within the contours of Vivaldi’s Spring? But it does, just as the almost childlike innocence and melodic appeal of Ringo Starr’s Octopus’s Garden is beautifully suited to the opening movement of Autumn, Vivaldi’s solo violin line weaving and diving around Starr’s cheerful strains. Norwegian Wood, Because (which, incidentally, has a chord progression derived from the opening arpeggios of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, played backwards) and Back in the U.S.S.R. are the subjects of other movements, with Get Back as the engine driving a zestily rustic, high-energy reconsideration of the finale of Summer.

Breiner returns to Bach—the Mass in B minor, BWV 232, this time—for an inventive suite using three of McCartney’s most enduring tunes, Here, There and Everywhere (as the Kyrie), the wistful Yesterday (for the Et in terra pax) and Hello, Goodbye (as a thematically apt underpinning to the Et resurrexit).

To close the set, Breiner turned to the closing section of the last album the Beatles recorded, Abbey Road. Briefly setting aside the idea of weaving Beatles tunes into specific works, he gives the closing medley of Abbey Road a more generalised Vivaldian orchestration, focusing instead on the details of The Beatles’ Golden Slumbers, Carry That Weight and The End, right down to the three-way guitar duel at the centre of The End. And just as Abbey Road ends, after a pause, with an incomplete McCartney snippet, Her Majesty—a song missing its last chord, the closing piece in a dominant-tonic resolution—Breiner weaves Her Majesty into the opening movement of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, BWV 1048, giving it not one, but two incomplete resolutions—first cutting off the Brandenburg theme at the dominant, then having the harpsichord offer an equally unresolved quotation from Let It Be.

It’s a perfect Beatles in-joke. And you know that can’t be bad.

Allan Kozinn

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