When the four from Liverpool hit the headlines in the mid-1960s
under their collective name The Beatles I was already well
past 20 and really not very interested in pop and rock. After
some years as a jazz fan I had become hooked on classical music
and spent most of my time trying to catch up with all the names
and works I had missed during my youth. The Beatles were
difficult to avoid, however. I soon noticed that there were melodic
finesse and innovative harmonies in most of what they did and
these made them stick out from their contemporaries. Pretty soon
they also expanded the musical frame, introducing a string quartet,
baroque elements and Indian influences. They created a whole new
world of their own, making them a kind of cross-over band, even,
in present-day terms, a world music group.
The Beatles in
a way brought rock from obscure basement clubs to established
concert stages. Jim Palmer has brought their music into the
parlour in what could be described as a class journey of unprecedented
dimension. Their music has constantly been adapted and performed
by a variety of constellations. I remember the French arranger
and conductor Paul Mauriat in the 1960s: all lush textures with
strings and harpsichord. More recently Peter Breiner has performed
the music in 18th century disguise, “Beatles go Baroque”,
not wholly convincing to be honest but fun anyway. Closer to
Jim Palmer’s approach, Göran Söllscher recorded a Beatles disc
for DG on the classical guitar.
It goes without
saying that making a satisfying album of any music transferred
to another medium calls for discriminating choice. Jim Palmer
touches on this subject in the short liner-notes with this issue.
Ballads sit more readily on the harp and the greater part of
the disc consists of slow or mid-tempo pieces. There are also
faster and rhythmically more alert things. I am impressed by
his ability to make the music “swing” – or rather “rock”. Hello,
Goodbye (track 10) is so rhythmically alive, and still sophisticated.
George Harrison’s Here comes the sun (track 8) is another
highlight. The chamber proportions of the music inevitably lessen
the impact of the music, but one has to accept it for what it
is. A string quartet is not a symphony orchestra and can never
be expected to produce the punch and the colour of the large
ensemble. Hopefully there are gains as well – one of them being
greater clarity and translucency. This treatment transforms
the character of the music - performed on the harp Girl
(track 11) could just as well have been written by, say, Satie.
I also think it
was wise of Jim Palmer to avoid the most hackneyed songs and
concentrate on music that every listener already knows inside-out
in the original versions. I was never a very avid collector
of The Beatles but at least I purchased three LPs of the “Greatest
Hits” type and of those 44 titles only three are to be found
on this disc. Of these All you need is love with its
Marseillaise intro is surprisingly well suited to the
harp. Maybe the most colourful and impressionistically atmospheric
track is Strawberry Fields forever.
In his transcriptions
Palmer has paid attention to detail in the original arrangements.
The end-result is much more than a conventional run-through
by a professional arranger, making whatever material he chooses
instantly recognisable as “his”.
Jim Palmer’s playing
is excellently suited to the material and I wouldn’t be surprised
if other harpists follow suit. The sound is immediate and spacious,
maybe a little too plushy, with the arpeggios wallowing out
the speakers as they would in an ocean waves sequence in the
movies. I think I would have liked somewhat drier acoustics
to produce a more sharply-etched sound-picture – but I am not
sure. In Here comes the sun the sound is leaner without
any change in acoustics and in the end it is more a matter of
taste than objective criticism.
I have already played
the disc several times for sheer pleasure and each time I have
discovered new interesting details. Even when I wanted it for
simple background music I couldn’t help listening.
Beatles fans should
try this disc for a quite new experience and even though the
music is scaled down it is in no way diluted. Non-Beatles fans
should also try it – and maybe find aspects in the music they
haven’t observed before. And who knows, John and George may
be playing the harp with the angels today, why not in Jim Palmer’s