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
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
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