The King’s Singers

Dec. 5, Cathe­dral Basil­ica of St. Fran­cis The King’s Singers

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO -

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

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