Sir Paul McCartney exists in that stratospheric realm of celebrity where it hardly matters what he creates anymore – an adoring public will indulge his every whim, and commercial success is all but guaranteed. Such status emboldens artists to unleash their egos on the world, often resulting in ill-advised musical experimentation.
“Ecce Cor Meum,” released Sept. 26, is McCartney’s fourth full-length classical effort. The four-movement oratorio, commissioned in 1998 for the opening of a new concert hall at Oxford, was first performed in 2001 as a work in progress and finally recorded in March of this year at London’s Abbey Road Studios.
The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, directed by Gavin Greenway, creates a warm, expansive sound to support McCartney’s texts, sung by the capable London Voices choir. Soprano soloist Kate Royal makes the best of her airy lines, navigating wordy passages in an awkward tessitura with a fluttering, graceful voice.
The boys of Magdalen College Choir, Oxford, and King’s College Choir, Cambridge, contribute the signature boy-soprano sound – a pure, straight tone practically required in English choral works.
McCartney packs his orchestration so full of various textures and colors that the children seem superfluous. His dense score quickly approaches schizophrenia. Within the first five minutes of the hour-long work, McCartney has already incorporated stylistic nods to 13th century plainchant and 20th century choral works like Orff’s “Carmina Burana.”
It’s an oft-repeated point of pride for McCartney that he’s never completed any formal music training, but these pilfered musical conventions and ill-suited melodies betray his inexperience in the classical-vocal realm.
McCartney’s kitchen-sink approach is the root of what makes “Ecce Cor Meum” problematic; it’s as if he didn’t know when to stop adding layers, and the result is a bloated, unfocused work. Though his orchestral writing is straightforward, relying on doubled parts and parallel-motion harmonies, none of McCartney’s ideas ever feels fully developed. Transitions from one musical thought to the next are jerky and sudden.
There’s no denying McCartney’s mastery of the pop-song idiom. Perhaps this helps explain why, in classical composition, he is unable to sustain any particular style or mood for much longer than four minutes. Delineated by a full-stop caesura, an outburst of choral "ah"s or a fit of pipe organ-fueled melodrama borrowed from Andrew Lloyd Webber, these intervals serve only to undermine the continuity of the work.
McCartney’s self-penned text is equally distracted. Inspired by the Latin phrase “Ecce cor meum” – “behold my heart” – McCartney has composed what the album’s liner notes call a “spiritual confession.” But his rambling, stale lyrics are laden with hackneyed rhymes –there’s even a winking reference to “a magic mystery.” Stretched to fill long movements, McCartney’s lines smack of self-help, while others merely seem the aimless musings of an aging hippie.
On a smaller scale, though, McCartney has always been a nimble wordsmith, championing charming, concise simplicity. That sensibility permeates McCartney’s best pop melodies and lyrics – catchy, memorable, and laced with whimsy – and could be the key to his future success in the classical idiom.
McCartney’s finest moments here are pop-sized snippets of lovely string writing, suggesting that Sir Paul may yet find a place in the classical world. Were McCartney to scale back his ambitions, put on the compositional training wheels and develop his style through a series of smaller works, perhaps he would discover a classical voice all his own.
“Ecce Cor Meum” makes its U.S. premiere tomorrow night in New York’s Carnegie Hall. According to Billboard, McCartney can do no wrong; whether that notion will stand with classical audiences remains to be seen.