Debbie Kruger
November 1991


The critics were cool, the public baffled, but for Paul McCartney his first “church gig” could only be seen as a success. Now the public can decide for itself: the world premiere of his Liverpool Oratorio — which was performed in June in the Merseyside city’s imposing Anglican Cathedral — was recorded by EMI Classics, and is due for release this month.

The work, commissioned by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Society to celebrate its 150th anniversary, saw McCartney team up with conductor-composer Carl Davis to work with the talents of opera soloists Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Sally Burgess, Jerry Hadley and Willard White, with backing by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and the choir of Liverpool Cathedral.

Having flirted with the classical form in the Beatles hits “Yesterday” and “Eleanor Rigby,” McCartney was tantalised by the structural freedom of a ninety-minute oratorio compared to a pop tune that lasts for only a few minutes. And he relished the use of a full orchestra: “It’s the ultimate synthesiser — there’s so much you can do with it.”

There was no doubting the magnificence of the occasion, in a venue with flawless acoustics, and an audience of 2,000, comprising McCartney and his family, press from around the world, and the Liverpool public curious about the local lad’s latest endeavour.

The semi-autobiographical tale of Shanty, a Liverpool war baby growing to manhood — and Everyman finding himself, and peace, through family harmony — isn’t a storyline that is going to set the classical world alight, and there are parts where the oratorio gets bogged down in its own solemnity. And, in shying away from the pop formula, McCartney has deprived the work of any engaging melody that might attract a broader audience. But it was impossible not to be moved as he triumphantly faced the standing ovation in his home-town cathedral at the end of the night. There should be enough interest in the project and those involved to ensure that Liverpool Oratorio doesn’t just become yesterday’s news. Debbie Kruger

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