Paul McCartney And Carl Davis’ “Liverpool Oratorio” Reviewed
“It is semi-autobiographical, the story of a boy born in Liverpool in 1942 as the bombs are falling. School days are recalled, with a recurrent anthem-like school motto juxtaposed against another recurring leitmotif that represents the hero’s love. There is a scene of teen-age confusion and solitude, a wedding with the woman who inspires the love leitmotif, some evocations of daily life and a marital crisis in which the pregnant wife runs into the street and is hit by a car. “
So says Edward Rothstein of the New York Times in his pan of Paul McCartney and Carl Davis’ “Liverpool Oratorio” as performed at Carnegie Hall in 1991. Commissioned by the Liverpool Philharmonic in celebration of its 150th anniversary, it made perfect sense to invite Liverpool’s favorite son to compose it, even if the closest McCartney has come to classical music is the strings on “Yesterday” . This is part of my ongoing review of McCartney’s solo albums (including Wings, and later including the Fireman) and album # 21 by my live and greatest hits included tally, and I found the live recording from Liverpool Cathedral better than expected.
There is the storyline, and you would think that the man who wrote the score to “The Family Way” would have done a better job. Then there is the instrumentation and singing, both of which are excellent. The oratorio is mucho muso and sounds like Carl not McCartney at all, all that ending on a high note is not Macca, “A love that should have lasted years”? Nah, McCartney lived in wistfulness. And finally there are the songs, and here I am completely comfortable enough to claim they are not great McCartney.
The story is a McCartney snapshot up to his teens, then veers into a kitchen sink drama, neither dramatic nor intelligent, nor particularly Liverpool based: if the apex of your drama is getting run over by a car (echoes of Julia, right?) it isn’t very dramatic and lyrically soon descends to the banal. the wife lives.
The performance I’ve heard is perfection; the full orchestra is joined by a choir, and a soprano, tenor, mezzo soprano, and bass. Both the soprano Kiri Te Kanawa as Mary and the entirely stupendous and sadly departed (he killed himself) tenor Jerry Hadley as the McCartney stand in Shanty sounded extremely gorgeous, just about everything they could do they did do. The entire choir were on the money and while the conductor Carl Davis, who had been working with Paul on the oratorio for two and a half years, was thrown for a loop at the start of the performance, “I lifted my baton and all the lights blew. I looked up and thought, ‘You have let me down.’ I was horrified and said to the audience, ‘I think we would appreciate performing this work in some light.’ It was restored quickly, but I was scared the mood was broken.”
The music itself isn’t terrible, I mean it isn’t Handel by any stretch of the lexicon, but it is professional, a little bland and careful, but it has moments. The songs are minor league. “Let’s Find Ourselves A Little Holstelry” is pleasant, but McCartney has done this veddy English stuff before, “Your Mother Should Know” for one and the 2005 “English Tea” is much the same only gets it right. “I’ll Always be Here,” performed by Kiri, is a highlight, it is performed twice, once a duet with Hadley.
McCartney isn’t right for this type of composition yet he gets quite far on his skills as they are. Still, he can’t even read music which means it is a fair assumption that Davis was doing the bulk of the work and Davis is not a great composer. Between the two of them, they don’t disgrace their roots and they don’t disgrace themselves. On record, the complaint that it is boring doesn’t really affect you unless you plan to listen to it in one sitting. I found it enjoyable up to a point and I am glad I took the time to really listen.