Archive for December, 2007

The King’s Singers: This is The King’s Singers

This is The King’s Singers.
Angel Records. B000002RPS

The King’s Singers are a six-strong, all-male English vocal group, who have made an international reputation for themselves as extraordinary performers. Their repertoire ranges from Byrd to the Beatles -from ancient music sung a capella, to inventive arrangements of modern light or pop music, with or without instrumental accompaniment. But this is only part of their charm. As you can see in the clips on YouTube, these six singers stand in a line, no conductor, and sing with perfect harmony and precision without apparent effort – while often “hamming it up” in a restrained and very British sort of way. Either by using musical exaggeration, strange voicings, or gestures, some of their numbers become really hilarious – without losing a rather proper formality.

The pedigree
The group started singing in 1965, and was originally made up by Choral Scholars at King’s College, Cambridge. This well-known choir (see Good Listening of October 2005) is made up of boy sopranos, with men singing all the other parts (alto, tenor, bass). Due to the prestige of the choir, they have the pick of talent from all over the British Isles, and so the choir is made up of boys and men of exceptional musical ability. They can read music as easily as reading a book, and sing perfectly in tune, with great tonal quality. Apart from normal studies for a degree, the 14 Choral Scholars (as the men are known) must sing new chants, responses and anthems for the daily chapel service – as well as rehearse for special events. Many of them were brought up in the tradition of the cathedral choirs in England, which usually have boy choristers from age about 7 onwards.

As well as their obligations with sacred music, the founders of the King’s Singers started singing folk and pop music for fun, performing at parties and local events. They recorded a first album using the catchy name Schola Cantorum Pro Musica Profana in Cantabridgiense! This didn’t sell at all, but engagements for them as Six Choral Scholars of King’s College Cambridge followed, until a concert was arranged at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London for May 1st 1968. The London debut forced the singers to think up a “real” name for the group, and they settled for “The King’s Singers”. By then the members of the group had stabilised, as Nigel Perrin and Alastair Hume (countertenors) Alastair Thompson (tenor), Anthony Holt and Simon Carrington (baritones) and Brian Kay (bass).

The counter-tenors, although they have normal masculine speaking voices, do their singing using the falsetto or “head” voice, and so sing in the range normally occupied by lady mezzo-sopranos and contraltos. A soprano F is considered a normal part of their range, and the quality doesn’t sound strained at all. At the other end of the scale, the bass can sing a Bflat right down there, five notes below the bottom G which most baritones can do. So they can cover as wide a range as a “normal” choir (but a bit lower). But there is just one voice in each part, so each one must have a strong individual sense of pitch, while blending in with the other voices.

It is perhaps not too unusual to find top-class vocal groups in England, based on churches or Choral Societies. What distinguishes the King’s Singers, however, is the application of these skills to popular music, and combining both classical serious music and popular songs into one interesting concert program. Ever since they began, they have been constantly searching for new repertoire, and they have attracted composers and arrangers who offer them music, while some members of the group (Bob Chilcott, Philip Lawson), have been prolific arrangers and composers themselves.

A remarkable feature of the group has been its longevity – in 2008 they will complete 40 years of activity. The first change in the line-up happened 10 years after their becoming well-known – in 1978. Two of the original members (Al Hume and Simon Carrington) stayed for 25 years, up to 1993! In all this time, there have only been 19 members (an average tenure of 13 years). Now the line-up is David Hurley (since 1990) and Robin Tyson (2001) counter-tenors, Paul Phoenix (1997) tenor, Philip Lawson (1994) and Christopher Gabbitas (2004) baritones, and Stephen Conolly (1987) bass.

Brilliant, wide-ranging
If you go to YouTube and type “King’s Singers” into the search box, you can see a good selection of their talent in the non-professional videos that are listed. Try the Barber of Seville Overture for a hilarious exaggeration of orchestral music, and Short People to see lots of humour with few gestures. On the serious side, Danny Boy is beautiful, as is Il bianco e dolce cigno. Deconstructing Johann (Bach) is brilliant musical joking.

Without taking away from their extraordinary competence as a group, I sometimes get left behind when they apply their talents to songs one knows from a genuine pop or folk or jazz singer. For me, their pure, afternoon-tea-with-Aunt-Josephine style then sounds a little too proper, and the soloists a little too sweet, compared with the original article. But there is no doubt they are really first class, nor is there any doubt about their popularity – in the UK, Europe, Russia, USA, Japan and wherever they visit. They limit themselves to some 100 concerts a year (six months on the road), and apart from this do recordings, TV shows, and teach and encourage choral singing through workshops and tutorials. Most of the members who have left are teaching or conducting choirs, or holding musical workshops in many countries.

The CD
The King’s Singers have over 40 albums available – many of them devoted to ancient music (The Madrigal History Tour) and some of them entirely light, fun stuff (New Day). This CD “This is The King’s Singers” is in the latter category, with recordings from 1972 to 1980, mostly by the original line-up.

To sample some of the 18 tracks:
I’m a train is a fast opener, complete with chuffing noises

Girl Talk is romantic and jazzy

I love you Samantha has some fine modern harmonies

Ring de Banjo is a spiritual complete with twanging banjo, while God Bless Joanna is slow, moving, and impeccably harmonious. It was almost like a Song shows how 5 singers can sound like an orchestral backing behind the soloist. There are two tracks of Flanders and Swann’s humorous songs, and one of the Beatles. I’ll see you again puts a Noel Coward song on top of a flowing contrapuntal backing. My favourite is Didn’t We – just six voices singing difficult harmonies in a wonderful arrangement.

So choose your album and…..

Good Listening!

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