Senesino, Jenny Lind, Callas, Fischer-Dieskau… While audiences through the generations have been driven to heights of ecstatic frenzy by opera and vocal soloists, there is something about ensemble singing that has failed to produce such popular icons or to inspire anything like the same cult of hero-worship.
The very nature of the genre – its self-effacing focus on group blend rather than individual limelight– might perhaps account for this, yet it’s an argument that only a fool would try to sustain in the face of the global phenomenon that is The King's Singers. With a flawless blend and a balance of playful showmanship and sophisticated musicality that is, if anything, even more impressive live than on their many award-winning disks, the 6-piece ensemble are superstars to a man. (Or a counter-tenor, as the case may be…)
Returning to Oxford for the first time in over a decade, Thursday night's concert was a celebration of the Romance du Soir, with music exploring those perennially associated themes of love and the night. Wending its way from the madrigals of Weelkes to the part-songs of Elgar and Sullivan via a healthy dose of Saint-Saens (not to mention Jenks' 'Vegetable Compound' – but that's another story), the concert was a whistle-stop tour through the highlights of the group's latest CD.
The tone of proceedings was set in the very first bars of the opening pair of Saint-Saens part-songs – 'Calme des Nuits' and 'Romance du Soir.' The delicately fizzing piano of the opening chords, with their wonderfully interior delivery and immaculate tuning, commanded the audience immediately – an understated gesture that typifies all that is best about the music-making of this ensemble. Simplicity and direct communication is the watchword of all their eclectic repertoire, however complex or irreverently light-hearted. Somehow this approach succeeds in bridging the enormous stylistic and historical distances covered within each of their concert programs, and makes appropriate and intelligent sense of each style of music.
Here the group made short work of the distance between the delicately lyric French offerings of the start and the Saint-Saens 'Serenade d'hiver' which followed later – a riotous opera-in-miniature in which a group of men serenade a young women at her window. Relishing the Gallic role-play involved (particularly bass Stephen Connolly), they romped their way through the episodic moods of the piece, making entertaining sense of a piece that can too often feel fragmented and lacking in shape.
Forming the centrepiece of the concert were the four works by contemporary American composer Libby Larsen that make up A Lover's Journey – a cycle composed as Larsen's 'valentine' to the King's Singers. Spread throughout the program, they provided a welcome palate-cleansing change of tone from the more cloyingly homophonic excesses of Victoriana. The opening song 'In the Still Garden' set its insistently pulsing syncopated refrain of 'O Bella Bionda, sei come l'onda' against a more meditative treatment of extracts from James Joyce's 'Simples.' The effect as the refrain passed and echoed through the voices was of light refracted from a series of surfaces, returning at unexpected and shifting harmonic angles, successfully evoking both the energetic intensity of the young lovers and the contrasting stillness of the moonlit garden in which they find themselves framed.
Also effective was 'Will You, nill You' a rousing setting of Petruchio’s promise (or threat?) from The Taming Of The Shrew to Kate, his wife-to-be, assuring her of his intention to marry her either with or without her consent. Playing with the percussive poetry of the short text and its unusual approach to the genre of the love song, the song was a witty and exuberant gesture that made a virtue of its simplicity. This technique proved less effective however in the cycle's second song, 'St Valentine’s Day,' whose otherwise effectively subversive take on the traditions of the festival was marred by the unduly repetitive textural effect of spread chords built up through the group, distracting the focus from the work’s text and its stark tale of the undoing of a young girl.
The program was heavy on the Victoriana, with offerings from Elgar and Sullivan alongside the lesser known John Hobbs and John Rogers. Sullivan's syrupy classic 'The Long Day Closes' gained some welcome context and rose vastly in my estimation when set alongside Elgar's frankly rather ghastly 'Love,' whose music appeared to be undertaking a vigorously fought competition with the text (written by Elgar's wife Alice) as to which could render the subject matter more trite or predictable. Despite – or perhaps because of – the short-comings of the repertoire, the technical prowess and musicality of the group was much in evidence. David Hurley's distinctively unfussy counter-tenor brought real delicacy to the saccharine-tending melodies, and Paul Phoenix' expressive tenor came into its own as the vehicle for dramatic Victorian sentiment. The varying of the musical forces throughout the program – which ranged from three to six singers of all and every combination of voices – created a welcome sense of textural variety, allowing each of the individual singers to perform different musical functions and to showcase different aspects of their tone.
The closing section of the concert was a freer affair, with a selection of love songs announced from the stage. For this portion of proceedings the group abandoned their uncharacteristic music-stands and sang from memory – a shift which was immediately evident in the extra sparkle and flexibility of these works. Highlights included a beautifully delicate rendering of the traditional folk song 'I love my love' in a new and rippling textural arrangement (with more than a nod towards Holst's version), and the cheekily exuberant and irreverent ‘Dance to thy Daddy.’
Love appeared throughout the evening in guises tender, tragic and comic, sometimes all at the same time. That such an unusual (some might say downright odd) program of music should come together in a coherent and enjoyable musical whole – who but the King's Singers would juxtapose such tastefully understated performances with the humour of Frederick Bridge's mock-tender epic 'The goslings' and its romance between two ill-fated geese, or the raucous tango-themed love-song 'Chitarra d'amor'– is testimony to the group's unique skill as scene-setters and communicators.
They say that money can't buy you love, but who cares when it can buy you the next best thing – an evening with the King's Singers.
Photos: King's Singers; Libby Larsen by Ann Marsden