Music: 4 stars
Sound: 5 stars
According to the press release that accompanied my preview copy of this CD, Paul McCartney was “keen to tell a story through the music” of his first-ever ballet score. He ended up telling two: not just a love story but also the tale of “an underwater world whose people are threatened by the humans of Earth.”
Ocean’s Kingdom was commissioned by the New York City Ballet, which staged the world premiere on September 22. I was not present, but I have read the reviews — and they've been scathing. The main culprit seems to be the ballet’s choreography by Peter Martins, with McCartney’s score receiving somewhere between benign mention and faint praise.
Time will tell if future productions with other ballet companies will put things right in this undersea world. But meanwhile, I have to say that as a listening experience alone, the score is a solidly constructed four-movement, symphony-like composition that is lyrically appealing, rhythmically propulsive, and by far the best classical piece that McCartney has written.
Even without its visual component, the music is engaging — from the haunting, plaintive melody of the titular first movement and the detailed solo trumpet and saxophone of the scherzo-like “Hall of Dance” to the third-movement adagio of “Imprisonment” and the stirring finale of “Moonrise.” If it verges on film-style scoring at times, it is nevertheless in keeping with the dramatic momentum that a story ballet demands. And heard as pure music, it stands solidly on its own.
McCartney has the benefit of a top-notch recording team, with production by John Fraser and engineering/mixing by Philip Hobbs. Fraser is the longtime chief producer at EMI Classics, and Hobbs is the chief classical producer/engineer at Linn Records (he designs loudspeakers, too). The lushly scored piece has been given a full-bodied acoustic that is marvelously rendered on this vibrant recording from Henry Wood Hall in London.
As for the performers here, although I can find no evidence of the existence of the London Classical Orchestra outside the realm of Sir Paul’s Kingdom, it seems to be a very fine pickup studio ensemble drawn from the city’s enormous pool of first-rate musicians. They’re led by John Wilson, a British conductor, arranger, and scholar in the fields of light music, jazz, and music for film and TV. Wilson also collaborated with McCartney on the arrangements; Andrew Cottee is credited with the orchestration.
In addition to the CD version, Ocean’s Kingdom is available from paulmccartney.com as a 96-kHz/24-bit download — as well as on 180-gram vinyl, a nice touch for those of us old enough to have bought the original Beatles albums on LP.
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