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Triumph from The King’s Singers


The King’s Singers, an ensemble that started with a group of Cambridge choral scholars back in the 1960s, has been one of the most enduring vocal groups of worldwide reputation, performing widely varied repertoire from both cultivated and popular genres. It is astonishing that this past December 14 performance at Jordan Hall marked the debut of the group as part of the Boston Early Music Festival. The enthusiastic cheering and general excitement of the audience as the six singers stepped out on stage hinted that there are many who long waited for The King’s Singers to be a featured part of BEMF.

In a program titled “Triumphs: Renaissance Conquests in Love and War,” The King’s Singers on June 14 at Jordan Hall presented several madrigals from two important and related collections: the 1592 Italian Il Trionfo di Dori and English composer Thomas Morley’s 1601 compilation, The Triumphs of Orianna. Textually, all these madrigals are tied together by the final line — either “Viva la bella Dori” or “Long Live fair Oriana.” While the composers featured in both the Italian and English collections did not always demonstrate the highest level of individuality and creativity when setting this predictable text, The King’s Singers approached the refrain in refreshing ways so that the closing line was always born anew in each piece.

Many choral ensembles in Boston who do not specialize in early music, but who program madrigals, have a tendency to over-sing and completely obfuscate the intricate lines of counterpoint and sometimes subtle humor of the text. I mention this only because The King’s Singers gave absolutely sublime and almost flawless performances of this repertoire. Most astounding, however, was the complete lack of pretension in their musicmaking. The music was taken seriously, to be sure, but one was transported to the early days of madrigal singing, when groups of amateur singers would gather with their part-books, seeking “pastime with good company,” to quote King Henry VIII. Countertenor David Hurley, in particular, seemed ready to burst with infectious joy and merriment.

These men are world-class entertainers and a great deal of fun to watch, but it is their sound that marks this as one of the best concerts I have ever attended. When singing together in homophony, their voices, whether in combinations of four, five or six, blend into one of the clearest, yet warmest, a cappella sounds you can hear on the scene today. Their harmonies are sonorous, yet not austere, as is the case with some groups extolling the “English sound.” Extraordinary bass Jonathan Howard deserves much of the credit for this. As one concertgoer observed, Howard easily could have overpowered most of the singers on stage, but his talent was in his artful restraint. Even in the bass-heavy pieces, His presence was almost subversive in its strength, providing a secure foundation but allowing the other voices to float and soar.

The singers are well acclimated to the challenges of madrigal singing and surpassed expectation in their expressivity and attention to detail. Their diction, particularly in the Italian madrigals, was not just merely precise, but musical. In “Un giorno a Pale sacro” (One day on the sacred Palatinum) by Ippolito Baccusi, the “ch” (in Italian, a hard “k”) consonants were springboards from which the rest of the line blossomed. They also beautifully navigated the typical emotional transition of an Italian madrigal without pedantic cadences and overwrought drama. This helped highlight not just the beauty of the text and its musical setting, but of the madrigal form as well, especially in the case of Giovanni Gabrieli’s setting of Oratio Guargante’s text “Se cantano gl’augelli” (If the birds are chirping). The text painting, too, was approached with great nuance, even when the composer relied on fairly standard rhetoric, as in Gastoldi’s “Al mormorar de liquidi cristalli,” in which the “murmuring” stream features the standard melodic oscillations.

The imitative polyphonic textures were always delicately transparent and expressive. Each singer has clear soloist capabilities, but there are no delusions of operatic grandeur. We only received a tiny glimpse of tenor Paul Phoenix’s potential bravura in the final cadence of Morley’s “Hard by a crystal fountain.” Every single madrigal on the first half was beautiful and artistic, but it was Michael Cavendish’s “Come gentle swains” that was most breathtaking and achingly gorgeous. From the first glorious notes sung by Paul Phoenix to the almost hushed and mysterious reiteration of the final couplet, this was one of the most stunning performances of the evening.

The second half of concert turned to far more earthy depictions of Parisian street markets (Janequin’s “Le cris de Paris”), sensuality and flirtation (Josquin’s “Baisez moy” and “Allégez moy”), and non-politically correct cultural mockery (Josquin’s “Scaramella” and Lassus’s “Dessus le marché d’Arras”). The grand finale was Janequin’s masterpiece of mimesis, onomatopoeia and verbal virtuosity, “La Guerre.” In both Janequin works, the ensemble produced an incredible sonic smorgasbord, from the amazing drum-rolled “r”s to what I can only describe as Renaissance beat-boxing, When the text demanded it, the singers were appropriately campy but never let the humor subsume the music.

The one work on the second half that did not rely upon witty wordplay and humorous texts was Lassus’s “Paisible domaine” (A haven of peace), programmed as a contrast to Janequin’s boisterous depiction of Paris. Like the Cavendish on the first half, this was yet another astounding moment in its almost prayerful quality. Jonathan Howard’s gifts for stunning bass lines were on display, but each of the five voices (countertenor Timothy Wayne-Wright did not sing in this one) sounded as smooth as the best wind ensemble, painting a picture of an idealized Paris as “a safe place of rest/Where justice is certain/And knowledge sublime.”

The end of the normal-length program seemed to come much too soon, and The King’s Singers obliged the audience, who gave their second standing ovation of the evening, with a classic encore in their repertoire: a wonderfully pantomimed version of Alessandro Striggio’s “Il Gioco di Primiera” (The game of Primiera), wherein five of the singers take part in an Italian card game, complete with props and theatrical whimsy.

I have only one criticism of the evening, and it has nothing to do with the performers, but I direct it toward the administration of the BEMF. Upon entering the hall, patrons received a one-sided yellow sheet of paper with the names of the performers, the pieces, and the composers… nothing else. In order to get access to the program notes, and more important, the translations, one had to purchase the $10 BEMF Festival Booklet. While an impressively large tome, it put anyone who was only in attendance for this particular concert at a severe disadvantage. As a reviewer, I received a free copy, and I don’t take issue with the price of the grandiose program. I do, however, find it rather questionable and irresponsible that single-concert patrons were not given translations, especially for a program of madrigals and chansons. Even most BEMF “Fringe” presenters offer a program with translations, assumedly with far greater budget constraints than the BEMF-featured concert of The King’s Singers. Luckily, the performers themselves provided engaging commentary from the stage that covered the major points of the excellent program notes and the gist of most of the texts, but the omission of the translations from the “regular” program is a mistake. It need not be glossy or glamorous, but a copy of the translations respects the people who have paid money for the concert and no doubt understand the importance of the poetry and its interaction with the music.

Rebecca Marchand holds a Ph.D. in Musicology from the University of California, Santa Barbara and serves on the faculty of Longy School of Music and Boston Conservatory.



8 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. King’s College, from whence the original members of the King’s Singers came, is in Cambridge, not Oxford.

    I think the BEMF policy of printing one big program book for the entire festival, giving it to subscribers, and charging a reasonable $10 to single-ticket buyers who want a copy, is quite sensible. If they were to provide “mini-programs” with texts, people would probably want artists’ bios as well, and in the the big festival book is a better idea. And maybe it gives those single-ticket buyers an incentive to come to some other concerts too!

    Comment by Stephen Owades — June 15, 2011 at 11:23 pm

  2. Mea culpa for the Oxford slip…rather mysterious given the sheer amount of King’s College recordings I own. I’ve requested an editorial correction. Thank you for catching it.

    I stand by my assertion that translations (and I mean only translations–not program notes, not bios) are ESSENTIAL to a program of vocal music, particularly Renaissance vocal music. If I paid $50 for a ticket, regardless of whether it is part of a festival or not, I don’t anticipate having to pay $10 to get translations. Perhaps there should be a disclaimer on the event schedule (and maybe there is) that “full program materials are only published in the BEMF Festival Book, available for $10.” At least that would be a warning that the single-concert ticket price does not come with regular concert-going accoutrements, and would be a little less of a “surprise.”

    Comment by Rebecca Marchand — June 16, 2011 at 9:17 am

  3. Yes, the concert was wonderful. But am I crazy? I never heard Josquin’s “Baisez Moy,” at least not in the only version I’ve ever known. In place of this short, witty, wonderfully rhythmic seduction-song I heard something rather lugubrious whose text I could not make out? Is there anyone out there who knows Josquin’s “Baisez Moy” and who could assure me that the King’s Singers sang it but that I must have been dozing or in a trance? Thanks.

    Comment by Alan Levitan — June 16, 2011 at 1:44 pm

  4. In response to the ‘big program-book’ problem, if you’re not sentimental about such program-books, it’s easy enough to use a cheap paper-cutter to slice out the respective notes and texts for the concerts you attend on any given day. If you are sentimental about saving the book’s contents, re-place the cut-out pages into the book when you get home! Ten bucks is cheap for the excellent notes and translations, fascinating even for the concerts one isn’t attending. And carrying the cut out pages makes one’s daily burden light.

    Comment by Alan Levitan — June 16, 2011 at 1:51 pm

  5. Some presenters, such as Rockport Music, are very generous with their full-season program books- offering them to single ticket purchasers (and doesn’t this give better exposure for the advertisers?). Others, such as Newport Music, offer not even a simple program to buyers of individual tickets. Keep your season brochure!!

    Opera libretti in the era of electronic titles are not so important. In the past some presenters included them in the price of a ticket while others, including most European opera houses, charged extra.

    In my opinion, song and chorale concerts should always provide the words and translations. Perhaps it makes sense for them to be produced as inserts into larger program books so that they can be offered as handouts as well.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — June 16, 2011 at 7:51 pm

  6. Alan, as I recall there are two settings of “Basiez moi” by Josquin, one for for voices (actually two, in a double canon, I think) and the other for six — if by chance it was the second that got performed maybe it was the thick texture that made it sound lugubrious. But I was not there, alas.

    Comment by Joel Cohen — June 16, 2011 at 9:29 pm

  7. I, too, was disappointed, more on behalf of the audience than myself, to receive just a single sheet with the names of the musicians and the program order (in my case, for Boston Camerata’s production of ‘Le Roman de Fauvel’ — which I hope some of you readers enjoyed). Nevertheless, there are so many different productions, and so many words and translations to print, not to mention program descriptions, that the costs would be prohibitive if each were printed separately. At $10, the annual program book is a quite worthy souvenir & nicely done.

    Comment by Timothy Alexander — June 17, 2011 at 2:02 pm

  8. Much obliged, Joel. I’m grateful for your response. Yes, the version I know (on a long-worn-out LP from the late 50’s, now in storage!) was sung by two voices. You may be right about the six-part version not registering on my consciousness. But no matter how “thick” the texture, I can’t imagine it being sung adagio. I wish someone who was at the concert could clear this up for me.

    And David Patterson is absolutely right about the unhearable harpsichord during the BEMF Orchestra concert. This morning, however, Bezuidenhout was gloriously hearable on fortepiano in his excellent lecture-demonstration on articulation and ornamentation in Mozart’s keyboard sonatas, as was Christoph Hammer (on the same instrument) in music by Beecke, Clementi and Mozart.

    Comment by Alan Levitan — June 17, 2011 at 11:59 pm

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