February 1998

Paul McCartney - Standing Stone
EMI 7243 5 56484 2 6
Released: 1997

by Greg Weaver

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

[Reviewed on CD]1997 was a very good year for former Beatle Paul McCartney. On March 11, 1997, with a crowd of more than one thousand teens (none of which were even born when the Beatles were "Fab") waiting outside, Paul underwent an investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace where Queen Elizabeth II herself bestowed knighthood upon him. Then, on October 14, in a premier at the Royal Albert Hall no less, his first solo classical work, Standing Stone, made its debut. Who’d a’ thought?

I remember hearing "She Loves You" for the first time back in 1964. I was playing in my backyard with my friend Donald in Tucson, Arizona when it came over the portable transistor radio we had outside with us. It struck me, while playing with my matchbox cars, as being different. I cannot recall why I thought that; only the memory of that notion is clear now. But it was apparent that something was happening. It was about that time that my almost daily routine of listening to the radio became both more regular and anticipated. I can trace the foundations of my musical awareness to my listening to the radio on a regular basis; and that routine became more passionate after the "invasion" of the Fab Four.

Although Paul McCartney never gained the same critical respect as fellow Beatle John Lennon, he has definitely had the most successful solo career of any of the "Fab Four". In the first dozen years after the dissolution of the Beatles, he charted nine number one singles and seven number one albums and maintained a constant presence in both the United Kingdom and here in the "Colonies".

While this is actually the second classical work by Sir Paul, it is distinctly different from the 1992 work, the Liverpool Oratorio. That work was the product of a commission by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra to commemorate its 150th anniversary. Although it bears his name, it is actually a collaboration between Sir Paul and composer/conductor Carl Davis and is not so surprisingly lack luster. Standing Stone is all his own and was created out of personal desire rather than a dare, if you will.

In Standing Stone, there is a freshness of approach that is inescapable. Composer Richard Rodney Bennett sums it up nicely. "He doesn’t have the technique to develop music as if he was a symphonic composer. That’s a thing that takes thirty years to learn. What he does is something quite different. It’s more like contrasting blocks of material. But it’s not tunes. Anybody who comes to this piece expecting it to be a symphonic medley of pop tunes will be very surprised! I won’t say disappointed. What he’s done is something different from that and very special. All I can say is that it has a kind of magic about it." After listening to it two dozen times or more now, I heartily agree.

A traditional Symphony in that is comprised of four movements; it is based upon a prose poem McCartney wrote addressing the ageless questions of the origins and meanings of life. This is not a clear break towards a new direction for McCartney, rather, more of a continuation of his evolution as a musician.

The first movement, "After heavy light years," is made up of rapid, simple themes, representing the chaos preceding mankind. It’s tempo and abruptness lend to portraying the tumultuousness of creation.

Next, "He awoke startled," blends McCartney’s influences form ancient musical styles to try to capture the "First Person Singular." To get an idea of just how different and fresh his approach is requires only a look at the score itself. One piece from the second movement, called Sea Voyage, is marked to be played as "Pulsating, with cool jazz feel" rather than the usual Italian notation for tempo and loudness. And pulsate it does. This section of the movement opens with a piccolo solo floating hauntingly above a full string section. It is quite captivating.

In "Subtle colours merged soft contours," which is the longest individual movement of the score, subtle instrumental tones and reflected melodies are used to capture the essence of "First Person Singular’s" meeting of other men and being welcomed by them. Here, the music try’s to show us him coming to terms with himself and his natural surroundings by raising a monument to life.

The opening of the fourth movement, aptly named "Strings pluck, horns blow, drums beat" is extremely powerful and as moving to me as many of the stirring Russian compositions. A grand and sweeping movement, it concludes with a choral that is inspiring. It is a majestic and powerful conclusion to an encompassing work, attempting to portray man’s knowledge of Deity. Sonically, it will tax the low frequency extension and dynamic capabilities of your system. I found the most accurate presentation and timbre with my DAC’s absolute polarity switch in the 180-degree position.

In closing, I won’t try to describe the work to you in any more detail. Instead I will only say that it is refreshingly unique and inviting. Those of you out there who harbor a dislike for Classical Music will probably dislike this just as much. If like me however, you have been less than impressed by the "Contemporary" composers such as Philip Glass, but have a taste for new, vital classical creations, you owe it to yourself to hear what is now motivating one of the most influential forces of the rock era. It is a singularly significant work.