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The King’s Singers Live at the BBC Proms
Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
La belle si nous étions [1:31]
Le belle si sied au pied de la tour [1:34]
Clic, clac, dansez sabots [1:58]
Pilons l’orge [0:42]
Ah! Mon beau laboureur [3:34]
Les Tisserands [1:56]
John McCABE (b. 1939)
Scenes In America Deserta [14:11]
Clément JANEQUIN (1485-1558)
La Guerre [7:11]
Orlande de LASSUS (1532-1594)
Dessus le marche d’Arras [1:28]
Toutes les nuits [3:00]
Pierre PASSAREAU (1509-1547)
Il est bel est bon [1:03]
John William HOBBS (1799-1877)
Phyllis is my only joy [1:49]
John ROGERS
Hears not my Phyllis [2:47]  (CD only)
Traditional
The Little Green Lane (arr. S. E. Lovatt) [2:05]
Frederick BRIDGE (1844-1924)
The Goslings [2:47]
Traditional
Greensleeves (arr. Bob Chilcott) [3:11]
Blow Away the Morning Dew (arr. Gordon Langford) [1:56]
The Turtle Dove (arr. Philip Lawson) [3:30]
Widdicombe Fair (arr. Gordon Langford) [3:42]
Arthur SULLIVAN (1842-1900)
The Long Day Closes [4:22]
The King’s Singers (David Hurley (counter-tenor); Robin Tyson (counter-tenor); Paul Phoenix (tenor); Philip Lawson (baritone); Christopher Gabbitas (baritone); Stephen Connolly (bass))
rec. live, BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, London, 5 August 2008
DVD Region Code 0, Aspect Ration 16:9, PCM Stereo, DTS 5.1
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGDVD005B [62:00] SIGCD150 [64:09]
Experience Classicsonline

This splendid recording immortalises one of the highlights of the 2008 Proms season, a special late-night concert commemorating the 40th anniversary of the King’s Singers.  This marvellous group continue to go from strength to strength and their label, Signum, have chosen to release the concert on both CD and DVD.  The DVD brings definite advantages as we also get extras including fairly in-depth interviews with each member of the group and a glance into their past.  The surround sound is also very impressive, though the CD includes more of the spoken introductions to each song, which have mostly been edited out for the DVD.
 
The King’s Singers have long made a virtue of eclecticism, and typically this collection includes a bit of everything, including Renaissance madrigals, English folk-songs, Victorian part-songs and a contemporary commission, Scenes in America Deserta.  McCabe wrote this in 1986 especially for the group, setting some remarkably descriptive words by the architectural historian Peter Reyner Banham, inspired by his journeys through the great deserts of the South-West United States.  While long, the piece is quite enthralling as it showcases every facet of the group’s skill, from grating dissonances through to the eerie transcendence of its close, by way of some strangely unmusical patter noises.  It’s carried off extremely well, and the visual element of the DVD helps one to follow the words more easily than if it was audio only.
 
The blend among these six voices is extraordinary: it is rich and mellow when need be – we wallow in the Victorian part-songs – but razor-sharp and individually characterful when demanded.  The best example of this is Janequin’s La guerre, which demands the imitation of the rat-a-tat of battle, and much more besides.  Solo contributions rise out of the mix momentarily and then subside back in effortlessly.  It’s a priceless illustration of music-making as an ensemble.
 
The other French Renaissance numbers are crisp and effective - listen out for the chicken noises in Il est bel et bon! It is good to have the Poulenc arrangements in the same concert to show how the later composer, arranging four centuries later, taps into a similar French tradition and makes his own folk arrangements sound remarkably like those of his Renaissance predecessors.
 
Perhaps in spite of myself, I found the Victorian part-songs meltingly beautiful.  The King’s Singers make no attempt to justify them but take them as seriously as their overt Romanticism demands.  Phyllis is my Only Joy and The Little Green Lane are gorgeously sentimental, and there must not have been a dry eye in the house after The Long Day Closes.
 
I’ll remember this concert most, however, for the English folk arrangements which show the King’s Singers at their dazzling best.  The arrangements themselves are done specially for the group, including one from a current and a former member, and they fit like a tailor-made suit.  The undulating accompaniment brings a pastoral elegance to Greensleeves, while the haunting beauty of The Turtle Dove will live long in the memory.  As a great finisher, though, the group sing their version of Widdicombe Fair and here the DVD really trumps the CD as we see their hilarious acting as well as hearing their wonderful singing.  These songs are never seen as daft or unworthy: instead the group inhabits them as part of a living tradition which they are doing so much to keep alive.
 
One gripe to Signum, though: the descriptive notes to each piece are fine enough, but there are no sung texts or translations, and not even the option of subtitles on the DVD.  On the one hand this feels a bit lazy, as Signum have effectively given us the BBC broadcast without any intervention from them.  On the other hand, though, the group’s diction is so perfect that no-one will have a problem following the English numbers, and even the French pieces were clear enough for me to understand most of what was going on. 
 
A triumphant evening, then, and a fitting tribute to one of the UK’s greatest cultural exports.  Fans of good singing should not hesitate.
 
Simon Thompson
 

 


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