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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


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The King's Singers - From Byrd to the Beatles
William BYRD (1543-1623)
Haec dies;
O Lord make thy servant Elizabeth our Queen
Thomas WEELKES (1576-1623)
As Vesta was from Latmos Hill Descending
Orlando DI LASSO (1532-1594) arr. MASON
Dessus le Marche d'Arras
Pierre PASSEREAU
Il est bel et bon
Carlo GESUALDO (c 1561-1613)
Luci serene e chiare
Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643)
Si ch'io vorrei morire
Zoltán KODÁLY (1882-1967)
Esti dal
Cyrillus KREEK
Õnnis on inimene;
Psalm 121
Max REGER (1873-1916)
Agnus Dei
Traditional arr. Philip LAWSON
Down to the River to Pray
Paul MCCARTNEY/John LENNON arr. HART
Honey Pie
Paul MCCARTNEY/John LENNON arr. RUNSWICK
Blackbird
Duke ELLINGTON arr. KUHN
Creole Love Call
Freddie MERCURY arr. HART
Seaside Rendezvous
Billy JOEL arr. Philip LAWSON
Lullabye (Goodnight my Angel)
Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868) arr RUNSWICK
Overture to the Barber of Seville
Traditional arr. Fred WEATHERLEY
Danny Boy
Thomas TALLIS (c 1505-1585)
Spem in Alium
Paul DRAYTON
Masterpiece
The King's Singers
rec. live in Cadogan Hall, London, 2005.
ARTHAUS MUSIK DVD 101 248 [93:00]

 

I should confess at the outset of this review that I have long been a fan of the King's Singers. As a schoolboy chorister, I sang the baritone lines in Bob Chilcott's beautiful arrangement of Billy Joel's And So it Goes and in Simon Carrington's arrangement of Randy Newman's Short People. I also discovered madrigals through The King's Singers' cheekily-titled 1984 album, The King's Singers Madrigal History Tour.

The King's Singers are now a completely different group to the one I grew up with. Bob Chilcott and Simon Carrington left the group in the 1990s and not one of the singers I knew remains. Amazingly, though, the King's Singers still sound like the King's Singers. The differences in the individual voices have not changed the group's overall dynamic, its unanimity of breath, its fantastic vocal blending or its sense of fun.

This DVD, The King's Singers' first, is wonderfully entertaining. It comprises a concert given in London's Cadogan Hall in 2005, spliced together with footage from recent tours and from their recent recording of the Tallis Spem in Alium.

The concert program demonstrates their extraordinary versatility. It opens with a set of songs from the Renaissance. Byrd's two anthems are performed beautifully and the five madrigals that follow show the group at its most theatrical. They revel in the sauciness of the lyrics and the performances are near perfect. Each song in the concert is introduced by a member of the group, and Robin Tyson's witty introductions to the continental madrigals complement the performances admirably. The performance of Passereau's Il est bel et bon in particular is a delight.

The program then takes a turn to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Counter-tenor David Hurley sings the melody line of Kodály's Esti dal with great sensitivity. The items by Kreek and Reger are less memorable, but all four pieces in this group feature excellent ensemble singing.

The latter part of the program consists of more popular fare. There are familiar arrangements that have become mainstays of the King's Singers' recital programs. These include the haunting Blackbird, a cheeky Rossini overture and Duke Ellington's Creole Love Call (a favourite number of The King's Singers' German predecessors, the Comedian Harmonists). There are also some new arrangements including an hilarious Honey Pie and Seaside Rendezvous.

It is also good to see two arrangements by baritone Philip Lawson, who continues the tradition of The King's Singers arranging for themselves. Lawson's arrangement of Billy Joel's Lullabye is a gem and the performance recorded here is very moving. His version of Down to the River to Pray is also gentle and effective. I recently heard the Australian a capella group, The Idea of North, perform their own arrangement of this song live. Their arrangement was more soulful than Lawson's but is, as far as I am aware, yet to be recorded.

Masterpiece, which was obviously performed as part of the concert program in Cadogan Hall, is billed as an encore on the DVD and is tracked separately as a Special Feature. The decision to do this was a sensible one. Although it is clever and well performed, this is not a (master)piece that demands repeated hearing.

There are a couple of moments of questionable intonation – notably in the opening of Blackbird and Down to the River to Pray, but overall this is a superb concert that will please just about anyone. The sound is also clear and well balanced, at least in stereo playback. Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 formats are also available to those who, unlike me, have the requisite equipment.

As mentioned above, the concert is broken up with footage from some recent overseas tours, which allows the members of the group to talk a little about themselves and life as a King's Singer. They come across very well, and the introductions make the DVD less imposing for someone new to the King's Singers. It would have been nice to have a bit more biographical information about the current members of the group, their background and when each of them joined, but this information is readily available to the curious on The King's Singers' website.

The other footage interspersed with that of the concert features the recording of Tallis' Spem in Alium and commentary from the singers. Those familiar with the piece may be a little confused by this. After all, Spem in Alium is a hugely complex work comprising 40 individual parts. A number of new recordings and re-releases have emerged over the last year in celebration of the fifth centenary of Tallis's birth. This one, however, is different. The King's Singers have divided the 40 parts among their six members and overdubbed choir over choir of themselves to create the illusion of 40 voices. By swapping parts and varying their vocalisation, they have also disguised the fact that the 40 voices are really six heard many times. The limits of Hurley's vocal range also necessitated that the piece be transposed down.

The result is a fascinating recording of this fascinating work, a recording like no other in the catalogue. It is rather beautiful. The only blemish is that after the complete performance, which concludes the main feature of the DVD, one of the group gives the performance a ringing endorsement, something that should have been edited out. Perhaps its frustrating inclusion here is designed to encourage viewers to buy the CD single, which I believe has been released recently. I am keen to get my hands on a copy, but this recording is not for purists.

Altogether, then, a fabulous DVD and one that will please and entertain all. Fans of the group will be delighted and new initiates will be entertained, no matter what their musical background.

Tim Perry

 

 

 



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