Both The National’s Bryce Dessner and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood emerge triumphant in their seriously symphonic collaborations with the Copenhagen Philharmonic.
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above, Bryce Dessner

This isn’t the first time that electric guitarists and classical orchestras have attempted a synthesis, but it may well be the most successful and interesting. Bryce Dessner of the American band The National and Jonny Greenwood from Radiohead each contribute their own compositions, working with conductor André de Ridder and the Copenhagen Philharmonic. The album is both good and great news for music fans of all leanings.

Dessner’s work is both good and compelling, as he is capable of generating some startlingly beautiful sounds from his instrument, often sounding more like a harpist than an axeman. And the scope of his work is truly symphonic, with an attention to sonic detail that frankly has eluded previous rock/pop practitioners who hardly dared to step more than ankle-deep into classical waters. “St. Carolyn by the Sea” and “Raphael” are both quiet, understated works that manage to project considerable power and depth, while ‘Lachrimae” forsakes the guitar altogether and is cello-based. It’s a somber but stunning piece that is far more complex than the minimalist tones of “Raphael”, which for all its beauty never travels very far from its obvious influences of Steve Reich and Philip Glass.

Still, Dessner’s half of the album consists of an ambitious and lovely series of pieces, of far greater musical value than anything he’s done with The National, a group by the way, of which we are fans, even given the lachrymose vocal travails and poetic dark corners into which they’ve painted themselves. We hope there’s more to come in this vein from Dessner.

Jonny Greenwood
above, Jonny Greenwood

Now for the great news: Greenwood’s suite (based on his own critically acclaimed film score) is bloody brilliant. “Future Markets” is a fierce piece of work. Moreover, and unexpectedly, the impressive, haunting string-based “HW/Hope of New Fields” plays in the memory and clamors for repeated listening. “Proven Lands” cools things down a little, yet conveys a quiet playfulness. What is especially interesting to this listener is how concisely Greenwood has conveyed the drama from the film There Will Be Blood, conjuring up imagery of Upton Sinclair’s oil barons (greed, ambition and paranoia abound). The film, of course, is a modern classic, having reached the sacred status of being one of The 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.

Guitar value of this suite is zero, while the musical value is exceedingly high. This is orchestral work through and through, not some guitar hero slinging hash while the tympanist crashes and strings swell and rock fans in their best jeans roar with delight at the sight of The Axeman Cometh. Greenwood is a seriously talented composer.

He’s also no stranger to the classical world, having first come to critical attention with his scoring of the film Bodysong and his orchestral piece Pocorn Superhet Receiver. His score for There Will Be Blood received a 2008 Grammy nomination. It also included Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77, 3rd movement,; the famous “Vivace ma non troppo” can be heard in the ending title. For dramatic effect the contemporary composer Arvo Pärt’s omnipresent Fratres for cello and piano was used. Greenwood’s own take on his scoring of the film was as follows:

“I think it was about not necessarily just making period music, which very traditionally you would do. But because they were traditional orchestral sounds, I suppose that’s what we hoped was a little unsettling, even though you know all the sounds you’re hearing are coming from very old technology. You can just do things with the classical orchestra that do unsettle you, that are sort of slightly wrong, that have some kind of undercurrent that’s slightly sinister.”

Radiohead fans will rejoice in the musical variety and invention that is so vividly on display here. The orchestra itself is superb under de Ridder’s direction, while the sonic sheen of this recording is everything you’ve come to expect from Deutsche Grammophon.

Highly recommended, even for non-classical fans.

Audition the entire album here through Rdio: