ABBA goes classical
We thought we’d seen it all: a Bruce Willis album, a boxed set of the Carpenters, a blues record by the late Republican National Committee chairman Lee Atwater. Then the mail arrived, and out popped The Munich Philharmonic Orchestra Plays ABBA Classic. The record delivers exactly what it promises: lushly orchestrated instrumental versions of ”S.O.S.,” ”Dancing Queen,” and other luscious Top 40 cream puffs by the ’70s Swedish pop band. And, okay, we found ourselves humming along, from the shimmying symphonic disco glaze of ”Dancing Queen” to the quivering violin solo on ”The Winner Takes It All.” The orchestra also re-creates the pumping piano and brass of ”Waterloo,” turning it into a natural for halftime shows at football games. And in the best rock & roll tradition, the guitarist in the 85-piece orchestra has umlauts in his name.
The album’s existence isn’t all that shocking. From Phil Spector to the Electric Light Orchestra, strings are old hat in rock history, and so is the symphonic treatment of rock classics. Record bins have been littered for two decades with albums like The Baroque Beatles Book (Fab Four hits done up in the style of Bach), and, just reissued, The Aranbee Pop Symphony Orchestra, originally released in 1966 and featuring orchestral arrangements of ’60s pop hits. (You haven’t lived until you’ve heard stuffy pseudo-classical renditions of Sonny and Cher’s ”I Got You Babe” and the Four Seasons’ ”Rag Doll.”) More recently, on Greetings From John Bayless, classical pianist Bayless turned the earthy anthems of working-class hero Bruce Springsteen (including ”Rosalita” and ”Born in the U.S.A.”) into orchestral ooze, and A Classic Case: The London Symphony Orchestra Plays the Music of Jethro Tull presented ”Aqualung” and ”Locomotive Breath,” among other Tull memories, as galloping overtures.
The Beatles, okay. Springsteen, maybe. But ABBA? According to Peter Giesecke, the Hamburg-based record producer who helmed the project (under the pseudonym Patric Perquee) and recruited the Munich Philharmonic, ”They have big parties over here where they only play ABBA music. I think the time is right for good songs again. We have rap and so on — some of it is good, but some of it, I can’t understand why it’s a hit. The specific age of people who buy that music is 8 to 16. But think of all the people who like ABBA.”
Not that making the album was a piece of, er, Swedish meatballs. Giesecke did receive permission from Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, the masterminds behind the defunct quartet, but arranging the songs posed a few difficulties. ”I had my problems with ‘Waterloo,”’ says Giesecke. ”It didn’t seem like a symphonic sound would fit the song. So we had to choose special people to play the high trumpet notes. (The orchestration) works best with ‘Dancing Queen,’ where the melody is so open and wide and the instruments can sound the best.”
Giesecke says the Bee Gees are next on his list, although he first has to complete a second symphonic ABBA album. ”Everybody here thinks ABBA is like classical music,” he notes. ”And maybe in 200 years, they’ll be playing the Beatles and ABBA instead of Mozart.”