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The King’s Singers: Sermons and Devotions
Henryk Mikolaj GÓRECKI (b. 1933) Totus tuus [9:17]
Veljo TORMIS (b. 1930) Piispa ja pakana (The Bishop and the Pagan) [9:02]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971) Pater noster [1:34]; Ave Maria [1:51]
Geoffrey POOLE (b. 1949) Wymondham Chants [16:37]
John TAVENER (b. 1944) Funeral Ikos [7:14]; The Lamb [3:17]
Richard Rodney BENNETT (b. 1936) Sermons and Devotions [19:51]
David Hurley, counter-tenor
Nigel Short, counter-tenor
Bob Chilcott, tenor
Bruce Russell, baritone
Philip Lawson, baritone
Stephen Connolly, bass
Recorded at Salisbury Cathedral, Salisbury, England, 21-23 February, 1995 DDD
CATALYST/BMG CLASSICS 8287664299 2 [69:19]

 

Albums by The King’s Singers are not normally the first place one goes to find serious or religious music. They are more familiar to their audience as performers of popular and folk songs or medieval and Renaissance music, albeit often reinvented for their particular idiom. On celebration of their 25th anniversary, however, they decided to show off. This album, from beginning to end, is a display of the group’s broad talents and musical range. The concept is simple: take some of the most well known and intense religious music of the twentieth century, augment it with other religious works commissioned specifically for the a cappella sextet, and see if the audience can be inspired through the nearly-seventy minute musical experience. It is a demanding program, especially considering the limited size of the ensemble. Also, considering that they are better known for their lighter music, the intensity and somber nature of the material may be surprising. However, this disc is rightly in the RCA Red Seal/BMG Classics catalog, as it is among the better albums that this group has ever produced.

The initial notes are perfectly selected for the opening of this album. They are an a cappella exclamation normally performed by a large mixed choir harking back to the medieval while still finding resonance with the modern man. Considering again that there are only six men in this group, the Gorecki makes for a bold opening selection. This work requires a large sound. It is almost scary how big the group of six sounds. The arrangement is very well done, and although they perhaps would have done better augmenting themselves either with a supporting choir or by recording extra tracks of themselves, the intensity of the piece is not lost and the performance is largely successful.

The second work, "Piispa Ja Pakana" was commissioned specifically for this recording. According to the liner notes, it is drawn from musical documents and folklore to tell the largely historical story of the death of a British warrior and Christian missionary. Opening with traditional plainchant and drawing from Finnish pagan folk songs, it tells the same story from both points of view. The interposition of the different chanting traditions on top of each other creates a truly vital-sounding work that will attract both fans of early music and modern musical literature.

With the next two pieces The King’s Singers briefly return to the more-familiar. Stravinsky’s "Pater noster" and "Ave Maria" are normally performed by mixed-voice ensembles, but here are quite admirably performed by the all-male group. It would be very difficult to find fault in these interpretations. Those preferring other recordings are expressing a preference based solely on predilection for the timbre of women’s voices in lieu of the counter-tenor. As the origin of both works is inspiration from the Russian Orthodox tradition, later reinterpreted through the Roman Catholic liturgy, an all-male rendition is certainly appropriate. Additionally, here it is as impressive as it is distinctive.

The most intriguing work on the album is Geoffrey Poole’s Wymondham Chants. It is a four movement modernization and reinterpretation of fifteenth-century English carols. The prologue "Ave, rex angelorum" is melodic, though not particularly soothing or regressive. The scherzo "Tutivillus" certainly shows modern influences such as Stravinsky or Benjamin Britten. It is rhythmic, yet ametrical, and certainly not melodic in any traditional sense. The voices are largely utilized as percussion instruments. Truly this may be the most distinctive point on the album, as the group is clearly stepping beyond the traditional realm of vocal music. This is a brief exploration of non-traditional vocal technique though. The third movement is a prayer, "Mary modyr", which returns to the melodic and introspective sense that one would expect. This is the point at which the piece is at its most familiar. It is the movement which sounds the most medieval. Finally the epilogue, "Blessed Jesu" is a harmonically rich ensemble piece that sounds in turns reminiscent of French impressionism, with all of the planning and chordal complexity that implies, and medieval plainchant with its open octaves and perfect fifths providing the extent of the harmonic vocabulary. Again, according to the insert, the inspiration was the ruined medieval abbey of Wymondham in Norfolk. Apparently the imagined experience of reconstructing the roof and carvings inspired the process of constructing the music, leaving the ancient underpinnings while augmenting and encapsulating the works with pieces of the modern world. It is an apt metaphor for the four movements regardless of the actuality of the experience.

After the Wymondham Chants the King’s Singers return to familiar pieces with two selections from the book of John Tavener. There are few works that can match the solemn beauty of the Funeral Ikos, based on Greek Orthodox funeral sequences for the burial of priests. While the previous work may be the most intriguing and distinctive, this selection is probably the most moving. The counter-tenors soar and balance against the four lower voices in otherworldly fashion. This is one of the best recordings that can be found of this particular work. The Lamb, also by Tavener, is again remarkably well done and moving.

The five-movement Sermons and Devotions by Richard Rodney Bennett concludes the anthology. As it was commissioned for this group, debuted in recording on the original pressing of this album, and eventually chosen as the title work, it is clear that this is a piece which the King’s Singers hold in high regard. This is not unreasonable as the exceptionally flexible Bennett is actually able to enhance the already moving poetry of John Donne’s pen. Much of the text is familiar, including the quite famous line, "Ask not for whom the bell doth toll; it tolls for thee ..." The atypical tonal vocabulary that Bennett has developed through his movie scores, symphonies, concertos, operas, choral pieces, instrumental works, and songs is fully utilized. He stretches the rhythmic and harmonic sensibilities of the performers. However the singers do stand up to the challenge. While obviously challenging from a technical sense, there is not a note out of place in tuning or time.

In summation, this album represents solid work by an often masterful group. If the listener thinks that the King’s Singers best work is Good Vibrations then this album is probably not one that would be particularly interesting. Although certainly approachable and never avant-garde, these works are of a more serious and challenging nature. For a fan of choral or religious music, however, the excellence of the music and the enthusiasm of the performances make for an album that I feel I must recommend.

Patrick Gary

 



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