The King’s Singers Push Forward to Their Next 50 Years

CanadaCanada Royal Blood: Music of King Henry VIII: The King’s Singers (Patrick Dunachie and Edward Button [countertenors], Julian Gregory [tenor], Christopher Bruerton and Nick Ashby [baritones], Jonathan Howard [bass]), Chan Centre, Vancouver, 9.2.2019. (GN)

The King’s Singers © Jan Gates
The King’s Singers © Jan Gates

Henry VIII – ‘Pastime with good companie’
Byrd – ‘O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth, our Queen’; ‘Ne irascaris, Domine’
Britten – Choral Dances from Gloriana
Weelkes – ‘As Vesta was descending’
Tomkins – ‘When David heard’
Purcell – ‘I was glad’
Bennett – ‘The seasons of his Mercies’
Selected Folk Songs and Popular ‘Favorites’

2018 marked the fiftieth anniversary of The King’s Singers, and the ensemble has kept remarkably busy since their initial celebration in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, in January 2018. December saw a 14-concert North American tour, and they have moved forward with another 12-concert expedition in February 2019, of which this concert was part. This was their last stop before flying off to the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles: their three-disc album ‘GOLD’ – released for the Anniversary – was nominated in the Best Classical Compendium category. They had won two Grammys previously, and it is with regret that one has to report they did not secure a third. The concert on tap was ‘Royal Blood: Music of King Henry VIII’: a variety of Elizabethan staples augmented by modern pieces by Benjamin Britten and Richard-Rodney Bennett. The second part of the concert exhibited the group’s signature delight in folk songs and pop classics. Overall, the group’s vocal precision and luminosity, along with its personal charm and taste for variety, carried the day and made for a most entertaining appearance.

A key dimension of The King’s Singers’ approach is how well they communicate with the audience and display enthusiasm for what they are performing. The group has always been ahead of others in this ‘engagement’ component, and many current musicians have followed their lead. It is interesting that they seem to achieve a sense of personal communication without retreating to an all-too-friendly type of informality. There is also the issue of the sextet’s continuity over half a century: there have been 26 members all told, and the oldest member of the current collection (bass Jonathan Howard) joined in 2010. The newest members, countertenor Edward Button and baritone Nick Ashby, joined just this year. Nonetheless, the group does not seem to miss a beat vocally, and the new additions add freshness and excitement to the group’s evolution. Each singer is demonstrably a fine soloist on his own. The group still maintains their original vocal composition of two countertenors, one tenor, two baritones and a bass.

There is very little that the group cannot do vocally. It continues to maintain an inspiring blend, which can be variously warm or distilled, and manages a full range of dynamics. The individual voicings are pure and precise yet distinctive in timbre, and the balance is such that one can always hear each individual voice, even in unison passages. Their rhythmic and tonal flexibility consistently impresses. The music is typically intertwined with spoken narrative, and each member of the ensemble is adept at bringing his own distinct brand of oratorical gravity and wit and, occasionally, King’s College imperiousness, to a story.

There was a convincing line through this music. After an opening piece attributed to King Henry VIII himself, they quickly moved to William Byrd and the joys of Queen Elizabeth I. Byrd’s ‘O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth, our Queen’ was treated with notable purity and refinement, while ‘Ne irascaris, Domine’ unfolded with a particularly natural line, employing artful dynamic contrasts, and finely-drawn legato lines later on. One soon became aware of the ensemble’s pristine precision and balance, with both an airy expanse on top and a fulsome richness in the bottom. Then came Britten’s Choral Dances from ‘Gloriana’, six delightful pieces which received both keen and flexible articulation from the choir, alternating zeal with a lightness of spirit, and summoning one particularly fetching episode for the two countertenors. The ‘Final Dance of Homage’ was appropriately lyrical and finely scaled. Praise to ‘Oriana’ continued in Thomas Weelkes’ ‘As Vesta was descending’, and its story was told with an attractively playful streak, moving only to richer, ceremonial textures at the end. After a luminous and richly felt Lament from Thomas Tomkins and a finely appointed treatment of Purcell’s ‘I was glad’, we reached the final destination: Richard-Rodney Bennett’s ‘The seasons of his Mercies’. One enjoyed the stranger harmonies and textures in this longer modern piece (though based on John Donne), and the performance was committed and quite searching, with estimable solo contributions.

The second half visited ‘The Legacy’ in Bob Chilcott’s refined version of ‘Greensleeves’, Goff Richard’s arrangement of ‘Dance to thy Daddy’ and Gordon Langford’s arrangements of ‘The Oak and the Ash’ and ‘Bobby Shaftoe’. Here the harmonic synergies of the ensemble were amply in evidence, successfully alternating contemplation and charm with athletic effervescence. Equally notable about these and the popular songs that followed is how precisely and elegantly they were articulated, often exposing new detail in the music. Undoubtedly, there is a playful spirit at work in all this, but there is also fine identification with the sentiment in the songs: ‘Danny Boy’ was sung with real feeling. Then we turned to the familiar terrain of The Beatles: ‘And I Love Her’ came first but it was the ‘Honey Pie’ encore that was the real crowd pleaser, with the singers displaying their playful (almost bizarre) delight at caricature and reproducing believable instrumental sounds alongside the lyrics. This was great fun: too bad we didn’t get to hear one of their Rossini overtures.

In any event, this concert was an almost perfect rendering of The King’s Singers brand, terrifically enjoyable and an inspired testimony to their 50-year legacy.

Geoffrey Newman

Previously published in a slightly different form on

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