This studio account of the Concerto for Group and Orchestra is Jon’s final statement of his prized composition. It is a glittering new take on his glorious opus and, for those of us who have taken the work to our hearts, we have here another superlative version to cherish. It is a deeply moving experience made even more affecting by the composer’s passing.
Taking the Concerto on the road around the world with Deep Purple and hearing various other renditions over the years have clearly enabled Jon to refine the orchestral parts even further. There are some delightful additions and modifications to the scoring but, rest assured, they do not interfere with the original integrity of the work. Although, there is a certain inevitable loss of immediate, edge-of-seat tension that becomes a live presentation, conductor Paul Mann and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conjure up an outstanding, vibrant, luminous orchestral display: it is a beautifully expressive and passionate performance. The group/orchestral dynamics are wholehearted and finely judged. The tutti sections are lucid and, vitally, the finer points of the scoring are fully resonant. The recording is full, sharp, and delightfully dynamic – the sound of the band and the orchestra together is simply breathtaking at times.
The most obviously divergent elements of the studio version are the performances of the new instrumentalists and vocalists. These will delightfully surprise some and disappoint others. To be sure, there are certain aspects of the band’s contributions which may take time to appreciate fully and crucial moments that do not quite bear favourable comparison to the previous accounts involving Purple. However, with due acquaintance, you will, I’m sure, soon become accustomed to the differences and happily embrace the latest members of the ’group’ and their contrasting take on the work. Very pleasingly, Jon’s Hammond provides some telling augmentations to the overall instrumentation.
That radiant clarinet melody which has become so familiar, as always, immediately brings a smile to the face and with the inspired horn statement against the strings the heart begins to quicken. The pizzicato is a joy. All is well! The opening orchestral exposition gleams majestically with fabulous new nuances. When that delightful, chirpy clarinet tune arrives and the strings marvellously reply you will, no doubt, await the entry of the band with some anticipation. Of course, Ian Paice is a virtually impossible act to follow but Brett Morgan performs exceptionally well.
Darin Vasilev very much makes the decisive first guitar passage his own. It has a highly charged, spontaneous feel yet is consummately constructed and – unlike Ritchie’s long, though exhilarating, 1969 self-indulgence – is more in proportion with Jon’s patent orchestral priorites: in fact, it is probably now a tad too short. The return of the orchestra is an astounding moment. Jon’s solo is also slightly more succinct than before but he still provides his riveting segue with the orchestra. The guitar cadenza is an unexpected, fret-melting extravaganza which, after initial misgivings, I have come to consider a major plus here. The clarinet cadenza, following the grand false ending, has now become a real tour de force. The triumphant finale is glorious as the band and the orchestra fight out for the final say. Simply awe-inspiring.
The slow movement was always a remarkable achievement. Jon’s compositional crafting and the way he movingly integrated the band and the orchestra produced a dazzling enchantment from start to finish. This studio version probably presents the most elevating orchestral rendering of the Andante yet heard. Paul Mann takes it a little slower than previously and really brings out the grace and splendour of the orchestral writing. Steve Balsamo’s more refined, delicate, less rock ‘n’ roll voice offers a highly pleasing departure from previous versions, and the addition of Kasia Laska’s female harmony adds a brilliant new dimension to this section as the two wonderfully combine.
That important moment when Jon transfigures one of his themes into an opulent Tchaikovskian gesture is magnificently played – romantic grandeur without the faintest hint of filmic bombast. Bruce Dickinson appropriately pulls off his parts duly balancing aggressiveness and finesse: indeed, he affords a glowing contrast to the proceeding vocals from Steve Balsamo and Kasia Laska and this provides a major bonus to this recording. The guitar contributions of the one and only Joe Bonamassa are stunning, and Jon’s cadenza is superbly expressive. The pastoral string quartet coda is quite wondrous. The slow movement is perhaps the most significant and gratifying departure from previous interpretations.
The third movement is one of the greatest musical excitements of our time. I never cease to wonder at this dazzling integration of the two musical forces. In terms of the new recording, this will probably be the most familiar to those who have followed the work’s progress, though there are some delightful new touches. The orchestral playing here is magnificent: the percussion and brass are stunning with telling bravura inflections. Steve Morse provides another unforgettable contribution and the organ with the accompanying strings really makes for a special moment. Sadly, the drum cadenza is little more than a brief solo and now far too fleeting. The finale where we hear themes combined in a phantasmagoria of matchless musical wonderment remains a glory of twentieth century music no less – some of the rock/orchestral interaction is here probably the most pulsating yet heard on CD – but, oh, the movement now passes all so quickly. When it finishes it is very strange not to hear a roar of approval. The silence is, as they say, deafening.
The original 1969 Malcolm Arnold/Royal Philharmonic Orchestra recording of the Concerto for Group and Orchestra is a historic, prized and beloved musical moment. It remains a remarkable achievement and still sets the pulse a-racing. The 1999 30th anniversary London Symphony Orchestra concert version was an absolute triumph for all concerned. Paul Mann’s obvious love of the work shined like a mighty lighthouse beacon and Marco de Goeij’s reconstruction of a score from the LP and the video is one of those remarkable individual endeavours for which we must be truly thankful. The essays written by Paul and Marco for the forthcoming CD will no doubt provide a fascinating and revealing read.
Some critics have deemed the Concerto for Group and Orchestra a failure. Well, if Jon failed then all I can say is: he failed quite gloriously! May God bless Jon Lord for using his musical talent and generous heart to unite different musicians and integrate contrasting musical forms into one joyous and glorious whole. The Concerto remains a unique, major, and indeed heroic contribution to twentieth century music. This was indeed ‘the best of both worlds’. It is perhaps fitting that Jon’s first orchestral work should also be his last. All those who worked on the the studio Concerto have bestowed a fabulous and fitting memorial to the composer.
This review is an edited extract from a longer piece on the history of the Concerto by Vincent Budd.
Listen to the finale of the third movement – with Jon’s comments: