The Last Rose of Summer: Folksongs from the British Isles (The Queen's Six)
The King’s Singers cast a long shadow, and it looms particularly dark over this latest release by The Queen’s Six. When you’re an all-male a cappella choral sextet from England the comparisons are inevitable, unavoidable. But it’s hard not to feel with this recording of folk songs from the British Isles that the group have gone out of their way to court comparison.
It’s not one that works in The Queen’s Six’s favour. What we lack here in six of Windsor’s 12 lay-clerks is the sheer vocal quality (tenors aside) needed to carry this repertoire. The charm of so many of these classic folk ballads – ‘Annie Laurie’, ‘O waly waly’, ‘My love is like a red, red rose’ – is their simplicity. If you can’t play it absolutely straight, trusting in your legato line and beauty of tone to do the work, then you may as well forget it. It’s not like these classic songs (it would have been lovely to see just one or two outliers included along with the obvious) really need another account, especially when there are already several better on this label alone.
And then there are the arrangements. Some serious talent is represented here – Timothy Byram-Wigfield, Alexander L’Estrange alongside Vaughan Williams and Holst – but most of the modern arrangements just can’t seem to leave well alone. The fiddly fussiness and knee-jerk interventionism of many (‘Dance to your daddy’, ‘Dashing away with the smoothing iron’, ‘Down by the Salley Gardens’) just feels glib, smothering the original melodies in pillows of added-note harmonies.
It’s an approach that works best for the lighter numbers. Ruairi Bowen’s ingenious, Brittenish ‘What shall we do with the drunken sailor?’ works well; and if Stephen Carleston’s ‘Bobby Shaftoe’ isn’t delivered with quite the panache that The King’s Singers bring to Gordon Langford’s, then that’s no fault of this deft arrangement.
Overall, though, it’s hard to find any especially compelling reason beyond Dr Andrew Plant’s excellent booklet essay to add this recording to a collection.