The King’s Singers epitomise a cappella musicianship. The group was originally formed in the 1960s by choral scholars of King’s College, Cambridge (and one from Christ Church, Oxford), but its current membership includes members who were previously choral scholars at Oxford, and even one member from New Zealand. With a relatively young line-up compared to previous incarnations of the group, The King’s Singers’ international repute remains – in 2012, they performed around 120 concerts worldwide.

The King's Singers © Benjamin Eagolvea
The King's Singers
© Benjamin Eagolvea

The King’s Singers seem to have a knack of judging their audiences’ needs and wants well. They can do “serious” – music from the Golden Age, for example – and they can do silly, as evidenced by the countless YouTube videos from the past four decades. Given that Cadogan Hall was very nearly at capacity for this concert, The King’s Singers had, in combining the silly and the serious for a programme of Christmas music, hit the nail on the head.

As might be expected, the evening began with the more serious music, in vaguely chronological order. Opening the concert was Lassus’ Magnificat Praeter rerum seriem, a parody setting based on a motet by Josquin. The chant verses were impeccably sung, with precise ensemble and forward movement. The alternating polyphonic verses were also well sung, if lacking a little in expression. More enthusiastically sung were two pieces by Byrd, including the well-known motet Vigilate, and a second Lassus piece, Resonet in laudibus.

The next trio of items comprised modern arrangements of old tunes and texts. It would, I think, be fair to say that this is the point at which the slush began to creep in (entirely welcomely, of course – it’s Christmas, after all!). A close harmony arrangement of the familiar carol Gabriel’s Message was sung with warmth, and the singers seemed to enjoy the subtly humorous and often quirky harmonies of Bo Holten’s Nowell sing we now. Baritone Christopher Gabbitas’ setting of Blessed be that maid Mary was a particular highlight, written on the occasion of the birth of his first child.

No Christmas is complete without Howells, and we were treated to his popular A Spotless Rose and Here is the little door, as well as Sing lullaby. I was not expecting the haunting effect of the bass melody and the upper voices’ harmony to be conveyed with such a small group of singers – let alone an all-male group – but in fact, it gave a sense of clarity to the piece that would otherwise have been difficult to achieve. The same could be said for Un soir de neige, in which Poulenc’s idiosyncratic harmonic changes often get lost in larger ensembles.

There was a strong sense of audience anticipation after the interval, with the promised “seasonal songs in close harmony” forthcoming. The King’s Singers opened with four traditional Catalan carols (arr. Richards) in the original language. There then followed a whole host of close-harmony songs and carols. Stille Nacht, delivered in near-perfect German (the fifth language of the evening), was a highlight of the more “serious” carol arrangements, but my favourites by far were the more humorous songs, complete with scrunchy (dare I say cheesy?) harmony. The group’s Deck the Hall arrangement went through every conceivable key, and revealed the singers’ curiously fine talent for drunken acting/singing, whilst a rapid-fire Jingle Bells provided opportunity for further physical humour, especially from tenor Paul Phoenix, who appeared to be the group’s resident comedian. At one point, a tribute to the late David Brubeck was announced; nobody quite expected a 5/4-time God rest ye merry, gentlemen, or for Take Five then to be worked in in several places.

That the King’s Singers stayed on after the concert to talk to fans was just another reason that I left in good Christmas spirits. For me, the combination of expert musicianship, close harmony and some truly hilarious and clever arrangements were just what was needed; the perfect concert to get in the Christmas mood.

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