The King's Singers: Gold
In 1967 six choral scholars from Cambridge founded a singing group and accidentally started a phenomenon. Photos of the original King’s Singers line-up show an earnest, bespectacled troupe of young men whose uneasy formality is a million miles away from today’s slick, matching-suited young members. But musically far less has changed, as ‘Gold’ – the group’s 50th anniversary triple-album – makes very clear.
Because what hits you first and leaves you last when listening to this project is the astonishing, exhilarating musicianship of these singers. You may or may not enjoy the group’s signature sound, with its diffuse bass warmth and blowsy top line (which has miraculously survived the departure of longstanding countertenor David Hurley), but there’s no arguing with tuning that electrifies even the simplest of chords, or with a vocal blend that turns cluster chords into gauzy clouds of colour. Stripped of the showmanship that’s so central to their live performances, this new generation of King’s Singers here prove that they still have the skills to go back to basics.
Paying tribute to the group’s past, while also bringing things cannily up to date, the three wide-ranging discs (five centuries of music spans from pristine Henry Ley to smoochy John Legend) divide their repertoire into three categories: ‘Close Harmony’, ‘Sacred’ and ‘Secular’. It’s a decision that allows them to roam to their musical extremes without the difficulty of trying to tie it all together in a single, coherent programme.
While all the recordings here are new, the pleasure for many longtime listeners will be hearing fresh accounts of familiar works and arrangements. Stanford’s The Blue Bird (erroneously titled here, along with Mary Coleridge’s original poem, as ‘The Bluebird’) flies freer than ever in this graceful performance, Rheinberger’s swooning Abendlied swells with so much restrained emotion that you scarcely miss larger choral forces, while Poulenc’s Quatre Petites prières de Saint François d’Assise feel markedly more differentiated and characterised than on their previous ‘Pater noster’ (Naxos, 12/12).
There’s novelty, too, in a mixed bag of new arrangements and commissions. Neither Bob Chilcott’s We are nor Toby Hession’s Master of Music make much of a mark, but John Rutter’s new Tempest-setting Be not afeard (its musical waves lulling and lapping evocatively) and arrangements of Shenandoah (Chilcott) and KT Tunstall’s Black horse and the cherry tree (L’Estrange) all feel like lasting additions to the group’s superb catalogue – a musical legacy well worth celebrating in its own right.
Looking back over 50 years of performances and recordings by The King’s Singers, it’s hard to think of a group whose music-making has aged so well. The joy, the generosity and the eclecticism of their earliest recordings are all still the defining qualities in their latest. The spectacles and stiff stances may be long gone but other things just never go out of fashion. Here’s to 50 more years.