If anyone in tonight’s audience was hoping for a recital of the Swingle Singers’ greatest classical arrangements from the past 50 years, they would have come away disappointed. Instead, tonight’s concert showcased a more contemporary group performing stunning a cappella versions of everything from world to jazz to pop, plus some original compositions – with a reminiscent look back at a couple of well-known classical pieces from previous incarnations of the Swingle Singers.

© Swingle Singers
© Swingle Singers

The first few numbers truly set the theme for the evening: that of fusing styles and transcending genres. The programme opened with a mesmerising version of a traditional Turkish folk melody, Gemiler Giresun’a – which, to my ears at least, could have sounded equally at home in a Gladiator-like film score. Soprano Sara Brimer and tenor Oliver Griffiths shone in the first of many great solos throughout the concert. Following this came the first Allegro from Corelli’s Christmas Concerto with a surprisingly fitting beatbox accompaniment from bass Kevin Fox.

Third in the programme was a version of Nick Drake’s 1969 song River Man – the first of numerous “pop” arrangements which included both old classics (The Beatles’ Ticket to Ride, with an introduction more like a ground bass than a 1960s hit) and recent sensations (Beyoncé’s Single Ladies, renamed Swingle Ladies). What was evident from these technically challenging numbers was not only the group’s flair for arrangement, but also their superb ensemble skills – particularly in the incredible fusion of Florence and the Machine’s Shake it Out with Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre. This was contrapuntally complex with intricate accompanying parts and strong harmonies; a rare moment of singing in octaves and unison created quite a contrast. Their haunting cover of Mumford and Sons’ After the Storm was also in my opinion far more stimulating than the original, with gorgeous clashing harmonies and a beautiful soprano descant in the final chorus.

Following Fugue for Autumn – a short contemporary fugue composed by alto Clare Wheeler – we were treated to a highly virtuosic rendition of Chick Corea’s Spain. Exhibiting every kind of timbre imaginable (it was astonishing to believe no instruments were used), the sopranos negotiated difficult melodic lines supported by imitations of percussion and double bass, which were passed around the rest of the group. An impressive scat solo from Wheeler was a highlight. Another jazz number in the second half featured just the two basses (Kevin Fox and Edward Randell), one providing a walking bass, the other improvising as a highly realistic muted trumpet – then swapping roles and even involving the audience in call and response. The group also performed two exquisite spirituals: Poor Wayfaring Stranger (albeit with a somewhat clichéd key change up a tone halfway through) and Amazing Grace (the melody of The Lord is My Shepherd subtly woven into the accompaniment).

Towards the end of the set, the group pulled out some of the old classics, including a Bach fugue which was dedicated to original Swingle Singer Christiane Legrand, who sadly passed away last year. Also enjoyable was de Falla’s “Nana” from Seven Popular Spanish Songs and an overdramatic diva version of Donizetti’s “Il dolce suono”, the mad scene from Lucia di Lammermoor. The highlight however, was Debussy’s Clair de Lune. Performed in a tight semicircle, the singers were visibly listening intensely to each other. The sopranos had great control on the high notes, with perfect intonation. The group finished the set with Piazzolla’s alluring Libertango, with once again faultless vocals from Sara Brimer while she danced the tango with tenors Oliver Griffiths and Christopher Jay.

With their 50th birthday fast approaching, the Swingle Singers have much to celebrate, and the seven young singers who form the group today certainly have a great deal to live up to. They have undoubtedly become more contemporary – and commercial – in their outlook, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. As well as pushing the boundaries of a cappella, they are in all probability bringing the genre to a much wider audience. The performance tonight may have had some clichéd moments and some questionable choreography, but of the audience members I heard filing out at the end, not one went away without loving the concert. The group’s obvious discipline and musicality means that they can succeed in whatever style they turn their hand to. I would still suggest, however, that classical arrangements are what they do best; indeed, their classical numbers got the biggest cheers of the night.

****1