The King’s Singers on Tour in Europe – a Mixed Bag of Melodies

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Various: The King’s Singers (Patrick Dunachie [countertenor], Timothy Wayne-Wright [countertenor], Julian Gregory [tenor], Christopher Bruerton [baritone], Christopher Gabbitas [baritone], Jonathan Howard [bass]) Tonhalle Zurich, 19.3.2017. (JR)

KS casual colour 1_c_Andy Staples
The King’s Singers (c) Andy Staples

Morley – “Now is the month of maying”; “April is in my Mistress’ face”; “Now is the gentle season”
Saint-Saëns – “Les Marins de Kermor”
Mendelssohn – “Der erste Frühlingstag”
MacMillan – “A Rumoured Seed”
Moeran – “Spring, the sweet Spring”; “To Daffodils”
Parry – “Sweet Day, so cool”
Bridge – “The Bee”
Reisfeld – “Mein kleiner grüner Kaktus”
Canteloube – “Le Baylère” from Songs of the Auvergne
Modugno,Migliacci – “Volare”
Porter – “Night and Day”

A glimpse at the above programme, many on a springtime theme, tells my reader that the King’s Singers brought to the Tonhalle in Zurich a medley of old and new, well-known and lesser-known, serious, popular and downright silly. It went down a treat.

The King’s Singers were founded in 1968 by six choral scholars from King’s College Cambridge. Now the six sharp-suited members of the group are third/fourth generation and not all studied at King’s nor indeed at Cambridge. Their popularity in the UK may have peaked some time ago, but they remain popular abroad as a fairly full Tonhalle attested.

Their difficulty may be that it is hard to place them in a particular genre. They are all accomplished a cappella singers but in trying to please all their audience all of the time, they inevitably can miss the mark in a number of areas. They are neither a match for The Sixteen or similar choirs in baroque music nor relaxed and laid-back enough for the modern numbers; Jonathan Howard’s attempt to swing along in the second half, whilst his co-singers stood still, was uncomfortable to watch.

Not everyone finds countertenors pleasing on the ear, and Patrick Dunachie, newest member of the group, was occasionally squally at the top. Christopher Gabbitas seemed to be nursing a tickly cough and was perhaps consequently very restrained. Apparently, if one member is unwell, or off-voice, there are no replacements – the singer has to do the best he can or they change their programme. Christopher Bruerton’s rich and characterful baritone impressed, as did Jonathan Howard’s resonant bass (and his German, even if it is in his blood).

The Morley trio of madrigals were nicely done to set the scene. The Saint-Saëns sea shanty about the sailors in Brittany was new to me and perfectly conjured up the marine scene and the dreaminess of the Gallic sound world. Mendelssohn then showed us his mastery of the vocal line and his melodic gifts. Several of the singers have learned German, so diction and pronunciation were commendable. Three of them enjoyed addressing the audience in German, introducing each song briefly, but wisely stayed away from Swiss-German.

James MacMillan wrote “The Rumoured Seed” for the ensemble; it was an interesting piece with added murmurings, unintelligible Sprechgesang, and a bluesy backing. The words were by British poet Michael Symmons Roberts and included some unusual lines such as “sex and death are in the air this May morning….crab-backs, prawn skins, clams, black-violet mussel shells all reek in sun-baked bin-sacks”.

After some rather innocuous Moeran and Parry, I enjoyed Frank Bridge’s witty “The Bee”, with a fine solo contribution from baritone Christopher Bruerton, who hails from New Zealand, and a humming buzzing accompaniment.

Then, iPads and music stands were put aside so that the group could give us a rendition of an amusing song known by almost the entire audience, “Mein kleiner grüner Kaktus” complete with organ-grinding noises – it received the loudest applause of the evening. Composed by Austrian composer Bert Reisfeld in the 1930s, it became a staple of the Comedian Harmonists before the War in Berlin.

The singers told us that they had tried hard to sing in all Swiss languages but apologised for failing to find a suitable song in Romantsch. They proceeded with probably the most famous Song from the Auvergne (Baïlèro) and then gave us a cheesy “Volare” to keep the Italian contingent from the Ticino happy. “My Funny Valentine” was missed out without a word of explanation; we went straight into a rather bland “Night and Day” from the Great American Songbook.

The first encore was a Greek equivalent of “Old MacDonald had a Farm” complete with rather rudimentary animal noises and gestures, which would have kept the junior members of the audience happy, had they managed to stay awake. The young girl and her mother in the seats next to me had left by the interval.

The second encore was by Bono in honour of Martin Luther King, in which the tenor Julian Gregory came to life – it perhaps the most beautiful piece of the evening.

The King’s Singers tour continues with other concerts in Switzerland, Germany and later in the year to Hungary, Belgium, China, the United States, Italy and Slovakia.

John Rhodes

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