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Simple Gifts - King’s Singers 40th Birthday
Arrangements of Folk melodies and popular songs by Philip LAWSON (b.1956), Bob CHILCOTT (b.1955) and Philip KNIGHT (1917-1985)
(see below for track details)
King’s Singers (Robin Tyson, Paul Phoenix, Philip Lawson, Christopher Gabbitas, Stephen Connolly)
rec. Arsis Centre, October 2007, January 2008
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD 121 [48.46]
Experience Classicsonline

Signum has raised its profile considerably in the last ten years. In that decade they have produced about 150 CDs. The Signum stable includes the King’s Singers this being the group’s tenth CD in as many years. You probably have recordings from the group dating back over twenty years on EMI or other majors. This disc is somewhat different from so many others. That’s all to the good because as was said by Caroline Gill in a recent article (Gramophone, July 2008): "…..there is no doubt that the King’s Singers are a musical phenomenon and their fan base follows them everywhere". If you are a fan you will need no further persuasion.

I have played parts of this CD to various people. My wife, an average music-lover said "awful". My son, a student musician (oboist and singer), said "dreadful". Why these reactions, none of my friends like it either. Indeed some laughed at the ‘souped-up’ quality of the arrangements, with reactions like ‘naff’, ‘twee’ and ‘sickly’. Oh dear! When you add a measly playing time of just 50 minutes, a very studio-bound close-miked recording, with added reverb, and many fade-outs endured on several tracks, including the arrangement of ‘Steal Away’ you might be tempted to abandon this review straight away. However it’s worth sticking with me and reading on.

Let’s have some help from the fold-up booklet notes. These consist of an interview with one of the singers, baritone Philip Lawson. He is perhaps the arch culprit as ten of his arrangements feature here. On the reverse of the notes by the way is a ‘pin-up’ photo of the gents, looking sleek and serious all at once. Anyway, to the booklet conversation and the music.

Lawson says clearly that "the studio experience is two-edged". He adds that they were in danger of "falling in love with the technology". They recorded the disc in the "drum room", an especially large one I suspect in the house of Status Quo’s Francis Rossi (with the help of Greg Jackman who ‘mixed’ the album), hence the ‘pop-like’ sound of the disc. Lawson describes how they recorded one track per day, rather a luxury, hence the reason why they seem to have had such a long recording period for this their first ‘album’ for ten years. "Once the singing was finished", adds Lawson "there was mixing to be done".

Elsewhere Lawson tells us that "over the last few years we have recorded many classical albums so we all thought it was time to redress the balance". He adds that the songs will "refresh the close harmony section of concerts and the content of (their) master-classes". He also reminds us that the album is "not representative of everything we do". So where does that leave the prospective purchaser.

The English folksongs come out best of all. In fact two ‘The Water is wide’ and ‘The Turtle Dove’ are utterly entrancing. The spirituals are quite successful, especially ‘Deep River’ although the arrangements seem to be searching to be deliberately different. Despite Lawson’s arguments to the contrary, the popular songs like Randy Newman’s ‘When She loved Me’ too easily fall into tune with ‘da-di-du’ vocalised accompaniments. I personally find fades-outs rather tacky. Nevertheless all of the singing here is absolutely superb - the finest of any male group and the competition is nowadays quite considerable. The balance and the tuning are miraculous as the singers negotiate some very tricky corners, modulations and dissonances. Sudden changes of dynamic and melody moving between parts creates a sense of producing just the right atmosphere for each individual track. This was their aim and also the reason why the disc took so many days to bring to fruition.

So, you ‘pays yer money and yer takes yer choice’. If all this seems appealing then snap up the disc. I should add that Philip Lawson says that the DVD ‘Byrd to Beatles’ which I have not encountered yet is more representative of their repertoire. Well, why not buy that too.

Gary Higginson

1. Billy Joel arr. Philip Lawson She’s Always a Woman [3.21]
2. James Taylor arr.Lawson You can close your eyes [3.41]
3. Traditional English arr. Bob Chilcott Greensleeves [3.01]
4. Traditional American arr/Chilcott A Gift to be Simple [2.07]
5. Spiritual arr.Lawson Swing Lo Sweet Chariot [3.00]
6. Stephen Stills arr.Lawson Helplessly Longing [2.32]
7. Spiritual arr.Lawson Deep River [4.01]
8. Trad. American arr.Chilcott Black is the Color [2.18]
9.Trad. English arr. Lawson I Love my Love [[3.42]
10.Trad. English arr.Lawson The Water is Wide [2.44]
11. Randy Newman arr.Lawson When She Loved Me [3.15]
12. Sting arr.Lawson Valparaiso [3.48]
13. English Trad arr Lawson The Turtle Dove [3.21]
14. Paul Simon arr.Lawson April Come She Will [2.13]
15.Spiritual arr. Chilcott Steal Away [2.54]
16. John David arr. Peter Knight You are the New Day [2.38]



 


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