12 Cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic

Cello Submarine

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This disc may be easier to find in the classical section (this reviewer found it filed under "McCartney" as a composer), but it's worth the search. There have been lots of attempts at applying serious classical virtuosity to the Beatles' music, but Cello Submarine is one of the strangest and most delightful. The 12 cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic (which does not have a "pops" offshoot, or do any repertory deemed beneath it, including a lot of American music and most British music), who arguably are among the greatest cello players in the world by virtue of the orchestra in which they rate their positions, have recorded a dozen Beatles tunes in arrangements exclusively for cellos. The results are about as charming as they are unusual -- the uninitiated will be surprised by the many and varied instrumental voices that the cellists evince in their jaunty rendition of "Yellow Submarine"; similarly, "Let It Be" shows off internal nuances that are only suggested in the Beatles' original; and "Something" sounds so natural that one might almost think that it was written with the cello in mind. "The Fool on the Hill" gets the most ornate treatment, the primary melody blooming in all manner of directions that sustain and extend the basic line of the song; some of what's here gets dangerously close to modern movie music, "Michelle" getting a barely recognizable introduction before the familiar melody of the song -- twisted a bit in the lower registers and stretched out on the accents as well -- appears. "Help" is perhaps the most unexpected track here, however, the players approaching it in a manner that's lean and lyrical, and maintains the original's tempo as well as elements of the vocal harmonies. Ballads, rockers, psychedelic, or pop, the producers recognized few boundaries in preparing this album. This 1983 recording was among the earlier digital recordings ever released commercially, but it suffers from none of the problems of low volume and weak presence that frequently marred digital releases of that period -- evidently the producers here weren't afraid to pump up the volume (how loud could a cello get?), and the result is a clear, sharp recording that captures every nuance off the performances. If there is a flaw in the concept, it's that the producers didn't choose the most obvious of the Beatles' songs, "I Am the Walrus," which already has swooping cellos in its arrangement.

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