Ecce Cor Meum, Royal Albert Hall, London

McCartney bares his heart in classical elegy to Linda
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The Independent Culture

With soprano Kate Royal and tenor Andrew Staples delivering songs accompanied by the Belcea Quartet, we were charmingly softened up for Paul McCartney's latest foray into classical territory, even if the wafer-thin programme did cost a tenner.

We also got snatches of the previous forays he'd made, with a little help from his classical friends, plus flak from classical critics: Liverpool Oratorio and Standing Stone.

Ecce Cor Meum had come about through an invitation from the president of Magdalen College, Oxford, who wanted a choral piece to christen his new hall. "Why me?" was Macca's first reaction, followed by the happy realisation that he wouldn't have to force himself "into any sort of box".

McCartney began thinking about it eight years ago but it bears the stamp of subsequent experiences, including hearing boys singing in Magdalen chapel, and attending a Tavener concert in a church, where, beneath a crucifixion, he spotted the words "Ecce Cor Meum". What this means to us is "Behold My Heart", but what it meant to Macca is "'Let me tell you what I think". And the thoughts he overwhelmingly wanted to tell us had to do with the loss of his wife Linda: this would be her elegy, his affirmation of love.

So here were the Academy of St Martins in the Fields, Magdalen and King's College choirs, London Voices, some crack instrumentalists, Kate Royal again, and in the stalls the composer himself, looking remarkably fresh-faced despite his legal embattlements.

After a ruminative chord on the lower strings, the choir came in with a plainchant phrase, then burst out. Royal's entry was heralded by the side-drum, then was embellished by treble descant and softened with bass undertones. Then, after a snatch of Stravinskyan woodwind and a blast on the organ, we were in full polyphony; the orchestration was deft. Bach, Dvorak, Bruckner, Vaughan Williams, John Rutter - as the kaleidoscope turned, echoes came from all sides: it was immaculately performed, but a bit like being in an art gallery full of fakes. So where was it going?

To the heights of exaltation was the idea, on the wings of Macca's verse. Occasionally this had the artless simplicity of vintage Beatledom but for the most part it was sententious: lines like "Without truth false shades nothing else remains" would have been better unheard. Once or twice a melody surfaced, before being swallowed up in the easy-listening soup.

The president of Magdalen hoped this piece "could be sung by young people the world over - something equivalent to Handel's Messiah". No surprise that Ecce Cor Meum should fail to match the greatest choral work ever written: since McCartney is still a beginner at this game. But who cares? Not the audience last night, as they were showered with heart-shaped confetti at the close. Macca, meanwhile, was profuse in his thanks to all concerned. All, that is, except his orchestrators

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