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.