Paul McCartney and Carl Davis, Liverpool Oratorio (Angel/EMI Records)

This enormous work was commissioned by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Society to commemorate its 150th year. The oratorio tradition goes back to the 16th Century, and has evolved into a form which partakes equally of both dramatic and church music. The theme is generally spiritual if not overtly religious, and there is usually a story line, although no staging. The Liverpool Oratorio, as befits a life-long story (it follows the character Shanty from his birth during World War II through the birth of his first child), is long—over 97 minutes—but it is held together by its most striking element: the songs.

The scope of the melodic invention is dazzling; the songs are by turns eerie, majestic, humorous, charming, ethereal, touching, romantic, nervous, triumphant. Several among them become thematic elements, recurring with different words in different voices and even in instrumental sections. These themes also give birth to new, related melodies as the work progresses, and are also used in fragmentary form as motifs. This melodic integrity unifies what would otherwise be an impossibly sprawling work. These melodies, along with the story line and libretto, are presumably the work of Mr. McCartney. The orchestration, presumably the work of Mr. Davis, is dear, competent and never flashy. The performances are uniformly first rate; the local soloists manage to be consistently comprehensible and in tune. Paul McCartney calls himself a musical primitive, and he is right if he means that he is direct, clear and easy to comprehend. The mating of this ‘primitivism’ with a larger ‘classical’ format works well.