Effortless singing, charming manners, intelligent programming; sharp-suited sextet The King’s Singers gave an excellent evening’s entertainment in Dublin tonight. Founded in King’s College Cambridge in 1968 under the snappy title of Schola Cantorum Pro Musica Profana in Cantabridgiense, the sextet quickly expanded from singing at dinners and college functions to a busy international career, singing over 120 concerts per year. While the composition of the group has changed many times since its inception, the vocal dexterity, incisive timing and good-humoured charm remain constant.

The King's Singers © Axel Nickolaus
The King's Singers
© Axel Nickolaus

There were two main thrusts to tonight’s programming; madrigals and folksongs. There was a delightful balance between the late Renaissance madrigals and its Victorian revivalist counterpart. The two groupings flanked a specially commissioned work by Scottish composer James MacMillan. Blues’ harmony and jazzy rhythms characterised much of the folk-tunes of the second half with special emphasis going on popular tunes from the great American Songbook. Throughout the concert, each one of The King’s Singers took it in turn to explain both the choice of works and a brief background to them in an amusing and informative manner.

Italian alternated with English in the group of Renaissance madrigals. Drawing heavily on Greek mythology, they sang merrily of arcadia, nymphs and shepherds, their voices enunciating the melodies woven cleverly together. There was much to delight here: the word painting in Marenzio’s Leggiadre Ninfe (Graceful nymphs) of weaving garlands was emphasised incisively by the polyphonic lines; the pianissmo repetition of the last two lines in Cavendish’s Come Gentle Swains was most effective; and the rising lines rippled as the sextet sung of “Arcadia” in Palestrina’s sophisticated Quando dal Terzo Cielo. Their diction was scintillatingly clear both in English and Italian which at times was quite the challenge given the lively, complex rhythms frequently found in these madrigals. At times, there was a tendency for the countertenor Timothy Wayne-Wright to go sharp on a few of his high notes but this in no way marred this fine performance.

MacMillan’s newly composed work, A Rumoured Seed, depicts “springtime in an innovative non-pastoral style”. Using four verses from four different poems by fellow Scot, Michael S Roberts, each movement had a different character. What impressed me right from the start was the opening with its wordless, very quiet harmonies, coming as if from nowhere as the soloist’s words stole upon the air. The King’s Singers nailed the difficult, zanier harmonies of section two and four with unerring accuracy while in the jazzier third section tenor Julian Gregory projected his part perfectly over the descending ostinato of the other singers.

The first half ended with yet more madrigals though these were composed in the late 19th century, the genre having experienced a surprising revival in England from the 18th century onwards. Here the sextet revelled in the gentle humour of J.L. Rogers’ Hears Not My Phillis who “sat and knotted all the while” rejecting her swain’s advances and spectacularly articulated all the words of Stanford’s Quick! We have but a Second as it flew along at breakneck speed. There was more than just a touch of the music-hall humour in Bridge’s The Goslings which the ensemble timed perfectly with its amusing echo of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March at the end of each verse. They closed the half with the lush romanticism of Sullivan’s The Long Day Closes imbuing each line with heartfelt sentiment.

With the slightly more serious first half finished, The King’s Singers relaxed into what they do best: cabaret style music with its gentle, languorous harmonies, jazzy rhythms and in between the songs filling in with charming banter with the audience. Even if the choice of repertoire bordered on the popular (Eurovision song Volare) or the trite and frankly dull (You are the New Day by John David), one could not help but admire what consummate entertainers The King’s Singers are. No matter what they sang, the audience’s attention was riveted upon them. Branding them musical postcards, the sextet sang a mixture of very familiar folksongs from around the world, the more ancient ones (The Oak and the Ash, Star of the County Down, O My love is like a red, red rose) receiving a clever, jazz harmonisation. The highlight for me of this half was Night and Day by Cole Porter which came from the Great American Songbook and whose harmonies seemed to melt into one another. Here as in most of this half, praise goes to Jonathan Howard who sang his bass part with terrific verve. Not unsurprisingly this left the audience clamouring for more which of course, these kingly singers were only too happy to oblige.