★★★★ (out of five)
How good a musician was the Beatles’ producer? I talked to George Martin three or four times and, while I found him very likeable, was unimpressed by his musical curiosity. Like many other producers I knew at Abbey Road, he was a purposeful fixer who knew what needed to be done to make a track work and which of London’s hundreds of freelancers he had to call in to patch up a session that, somehow, lacked the finishing touch. String quartet for ‘Yesterday’, piccolo trumpet for ‘Penny Lane’, George Martin knew who to call and how to integrate them. He had a quirky turn of mind, rather than an original concept.
This first album of his orchestral music and film scores, elegantly played by Craig Leon’s Berlin’s Music Ensemble, gives us an opportunity to see what might have been going on behind George’s determinedly bland musical façade.
Incidental music for Yellow Submarine is pretty much familiar from the Beatles film, as are the themes that George added to the Bond movie, Live and Let Die. The instrumentation is proficient rather than ingenious. Much more interesting are Three American Sketches that he wrote for violin and chamber orchestra, reminiscent of the young Aaron Copland but with flashes of jazz and swing — well worth a listen.
Something called ‘Judy’s Theme’ is half a notch above Mantovani, but the incidental music for Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood is genuinely atmospheric, anticipating the big film tunes of John Williams. George Martin could have done much more of this if he had come out from behind the studio glass wall. The gift is there to be developed. But I guess he was more comfortable behind the glass. In our conversations what struck me most was his quietude, his humility.
George Martin died last year, aged 90. My copy of this recording does not credit the producer.