It must be difficult to develop a new skill in the public eye but Sir Paul McCartney seems to be only getting better with each new release. While his first two "classical" albums were monolithic, heavy, overweight pieces that took numerous listens just to get a feel for the piece, on his latest collection, Working Classical, McCartney has scaled back tremendously. Gone are the full orchestra and chorus. Gone is the sixty-plus minute epic. Instead one finds short pieces for string quartet, most under three minutes, and three orchestral pieces.
The greatest number of pieces are versions of his past songs arranged for string quartet, these pieces having been created to be played at memorial services for Linda. In general, these pieces are fairly straight-forward adaptations of his songs such as one might do as an exercise in a college arranging class. However, the new idiom does help flesh out some new life in such great songs as "My Love", "Calico Skies" and "Maybe I'm Amazed".
"Junk" and "Haymakers" are original compositions for string quartet and both are quite effective miniatures. "Junk" has an Elton John sound about it and "Haymakers" has a light and cheerful Mozart/Schubert feel with a naggingly familiar opening melody that I'm sure I've heard before but haven't yet been able to place. The three longest pieces on the album are the orchestral ones, each weighing in at a little over ten minutes. "A Leaf" has a very American feel to it and plenty of wistful, reflective melodies. "Spiral", however, is a very impressionistic piece with many musical images cascading past the listener like a slow river on a warm summer day. Overall, these pieces are full of the immediately pleasing melodies for which McCartney is known. What is not present is the kind of orchestral understanding that is necessary to make a piece properly unfold. McCartney has yet to achieve his own style and sound orchestrally as these pieces are filled with many styles and unconscious musical references to Beethoven, Schubert, and even George Martin. With little to say musically other than his great melodies, the music is unfortunately reduced to pleasing background music.
This review first appeared in WhatzUp, March 2000.