21 Dec 2008

The King's Singers. Live at the BBC Proms

Originally written for musicalcriticism.com
Sunday, 21 December 2008

There is no escaping that the Press are currently preoccupied with branding almost everything and anyone a 'national treasure' but fortunately The King's Singers firmly established themselves as such long before this recent craze began.

Their fortieth anniversary year has turned out to be a timely reminder of just how good they are and left me wondering why we don't see more of them in concert and on television in this country. Fortunately, Signum have released this 2008 Prom both on DVD and CD and having started life as a BBC broadcast, the visual and audio quality is outstanding, and the Prom audience pleasingly attentive so none of the usual worries about buying a live performance really surface here. This programme offers a slice of the huge repertoire that The King's Singers cover which makes for an interesting concert peppered with some rather unusual juxtapositions.

There are no texts and translations in the sleeve-notes on either CD or DVD, which doesn't really matter because the diction of the group is so clear but it is slightly irritating that the Poulenc songs are introduced in twos rather than just once or twice and that these introductions are on the CD too – on the DVD it's all part of the concert atmosphere but if you were to put the CD version on your iPod then it would probably serve as a barrier to repeated listening. Quixotically, the CD tracks are also in a different order and the DVD track listings are each one digit higher than the booklet reports. But these are relatively small points and dwarfed by the beautiful presentation of both formats

However, packaging aside the singers are the real event here and are simply outstanding all the way through this concert so much so that one can't help but draw parallels with The Hilliard Ensemble when they segue effortlessly from John McCabe's Scenes in America to Janequin's La Guerre. Indeed it is at these historical extremes that we the consort are at they're finest. They achieve a near-telepathic blend that can only come from the volume of work that they do with a relatively unchanging line-up, another similarity with the Hilliards. What other groups can do this? As with all 'sampler' programmes there will inevitably be a few numbers that don't appeal to everyone's taste and for me the Victorian partsongs, lovely though they are and beautifully sung too, happened to sound a little naff after the exquisite French Renaissance chansons.

The DVD format is supreme when it comes to understanding the interpretive quality of these performances for the King's Singers are a charismatic bunch and their tenor (Paul Phoenix), in particular, has a deliciously mischievous look on his face when the music demands it. Moments of gesture and interaction within the consort are lost on the recording and may leave the listener wondering what the audience are laughing at but the studied concentration and sheer enjoyment of this ensemble really kept me glued to the screen – especially in 'Scenes in America' which was so good it was almost a master class in choral performance. The DVD also has the advantage of containing extra tracks including a rather revealing audition with Gareth Malone when Philip Lawson comments on the group's lack of vibrato. I'm always wary of this vibrato stance – to say the King's Singers have none would be to imply they are nothing more than six oscilloscopes and they are so much more than that. I would prefer to limit myself to saying their sound is shimmering rather than oscillating; anything but dead.

Just a few things felt slightly out of place on this DVD though. Firstly I could have lived without Suzy Klein's introduction which makes it feel too much like something I could have recorded off the television myself and lastly, the most wonderful part of the DVD extras, clips of the ensemble stretching back over 40 years, was less than two minutes long. What a shame.

One of the great things about this concert is that it shows us the sort of standard that the category of 'national treasure' really ought to be made of. The King's Singers are a group whose roots stretch right back to the Twentieth Century choral and early music revival and even though their singers have changed over the years their continuing joy, commitment and charisma show how they managed to make such an impact on today's choral sound and I'm not sure that we, the listening public, always appreciate the full extent of their influence.

The King's Singers (DVD: Signum Vision SIGDVD005; CD : SIGCD150)

11 Dec 2008

Dufay and the Court of Savoy

Originally written for Musicalcriticism.com
Thursday, 11 December 2008

The mid fifteenth-century Savoy Court is the basis for this disc of Dufay's music from The Binchois Consort, an all-vocal ensemble directed by Andrew Kirkman. Built around the Missa Se la face ay pale, interspersed with Propers for a particular Saints Day and topped off by two motets and a song, all of these works have strong connections to the Savoy Court making for a delightful and insightful selection which is accompanied by excellent sleeve-notes and translations.

That this mass has been recorded several times since the early music revival of the '60s and '70s, is testament to just how good it is and, as one of the earliest masses based on a cantus firmus, how interesting it is. By the time Dufay wrote this mass his song from which the tenor is taken seems to have achieved great popularity and his influence as a composer is suggested by the fact that this and his three subsequent four-part mass cycles are at the beginnings of what became a long-established tradition for great composers to set the mass ordinary. A situation which lasted right up to the seventeenth century.
This recording is everything that we have come to expect from the Binchois Consort. It is beautifully paced and delivered with a clear and luminous texture. French pronunciation engenders an attractive zing in the voices and these slightly exotic-sounding vowels are well balanced between each singer. Throughout the wide range of styles in these works the consort always negotiate the music with an insightful portrayal of the texts whilst maintaining their fluent style.

The real gem of this recording though is left until the penultimate track when we hear the song Se la face ay pale elaborated into a four part setting, probably by Dufay, rather than the three part version which is more often heard. Here the singers are at their very best, especially the countertenors; a finer performance than this I cannot imagine.

I am, however, somewhat disappointed that for this recording they have not chosen to revisit the more generous acoustic that so characterized their award-winning Music for St James the Greater (Hyperion GAW21997). That older recording had a sense of enchantment that is definitely lacking from this latest release where the emphasis seems to have migrated towards immediacy.

It is true to say that we have become used to a certain ethereal distance in recordings of Dufay, especially from groups such as Pomerium and The Huelgas Ensemble. Also The Hilliard Ensemble used quite a resonant acoustic for their excellent (live) disc of this very mass back in 1998. I feel that certain parts of the Mass Ordinary movements in this latest recording would benefit from being able to hear more of the building since theacoustic as it stands is not very flattering to the two countertenors when they are singing in unison; when, through no fault of their own, they often made to sound a little reedy. A more generous building would have portrayed a softer sound at such moments. However, when The Binchois Consort sing the motet Magnanime gentis soft blend is less of an issue due to the stylistic difference of the music, illustrating just how a delicate a matter this is.

For those who already own one or two recordings of the mass, I can only say that the song and motets on this release are well worth the investment on their own: they are beautifully sung and as a programme this selection of Dufay's works is distinctly more-ish. The Binchois Consort have given us a hugely valuable addition to our understanding of Dufay and I should recommend it to anyone interested in exploring this repertoire further. I'm looking forward to future recordings from this exciting ensemble.

The Binchois Consort/Andrew Kirkman (Hyperion CDA67715)