The King’s Singers
Dec. 5, Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis The King’s Singers
The King’s Singers paid their third visit to town and presented a Christmas-themed program at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis on the cold winter’s night of Dec. 5, courtesy of Performance Santa Fe. The men’s a cappella ensemble was founded in 1968 by six high-spirited and musically adventurous colleagues at King’s College, Cambridge. They created a modern equivalent of the Comedian Harmonists, a sensationally popular German sextet of the 1920s and ’30s, and set the stage for the flurry of men’s vocal chamber groups and a cappella ensembles that have emerged in the decades since.
Personnel has turned over many times through the years — more than 25 different singers have been full-fledged members by now — but the group has maintained its style steadfastly, and its performance standards remain high. It was surprising to note that the longest serving of the current singers goes back only to 2004, and four of the six gentlemen joined during the current decade.
The singers are less remarkable for their individual voices than for the way they work in combination. As a group, they displayed considerable breadth of timbre and shading even while staying within the confines of “classic” vocal production: extended vocal techniques did not figure in this show. Their tuning was pure, lending pristine brilliance to Lassus’ five-part motet Resonet in laudibus (the two countertenors doubling the top line); it similarly underscored the exotic modal progressions of Tchaikovsky’s “Crown of Roses.” In Holst’s “In the Bleak Midwinter,” they dovetailed their breathing to spin out phrases of extraordinary length and momentum.
In the whole recital the only works performed more or less “as written” were the Lassus motet and Arvo Pärt’s “Bogoróditsye Dyévo,” a characteristic work in which the composer employs slight materials to build up a sustained climate that many listeners find spiritually potent. Everything else was given in arrangements, most of which were crafted specifically to show off The King’s Singers’ particular abilities. In a tintinnabular set, arrangements of “Ding Dong Merrily on High” and “Carol of the Bells” (by Robert Rice and Keith Roberts, respectively) invited the singers to evoke the sounds of chimes or a carillon; at moments where they darkened their tone, they even took on a marimba-like quality.
Roberts’ arrangement was among the many on the program that were overly fussy, obscuring the musical essence of the original composition by piling on special effects. This grew particularly annoying during the second half, which was given over entirely to selections from the group’s latest Christmas CD — which they advertised in their spoken script about three times too many in the course of the evening. Too often the pieces were crushed beneath cleverness. A welcome exception was Roberts’ arrangement of the Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin standard “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which respected the inherent beauty of the song; phrase spilled into phrase in the group’s interpretation, yielding an emotionally compelling scene that far surpassed the dutiful jollity of the numbers that surrounded it.
One did regret that this year’s installment was so light on actual “classical music.” Apart from the Lassus motet, and arguably the Pärt selection, it was strictly a pops concert. In the course of not quite four minutes, Lassus imparted not only rock-solid counterpoint but also textural variety, the three-voiced middle section contrasting with the more robust five parts of the beginning and end. His work displayed musical integrity that makes the piece still vivid four-and-a-half centuries after it was published. For lovers of classical music, it was the protein in what was otherwise a feast of sweetmeats. — James M. Keller