Frequent concertgoers in our modern age will be all too aware of the irritation factor of mobile phones going off during performance. The King’s Singers, however, make a feature of the phenomenon and take it to another level. This world-class ensemble delighted a packed Hereford Cathedral, the closing concert of their 2011/12 season coinciding with the Three Choirs Festival.

The King's Singers
The King's Singers

Being Jubilee year, they had chosen an entertaining programme, entitled ‘Royal Rhymes and Rounds’, drawing on music associated with British monarchs through the ages, specifically Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Victoria and our current Queen. Music played a prominent role during Henry’s reign and not only did he support musicians but works have been ascribed to his own hand, including the first piece of the afternoon. From the opening notes it was clear that these first-rate exponents of close harmony would be a joy to listen to. The security of the notes went without saying, but in addition it was like witnessing a masterclass in diction. Consonants were prepared, endings were crisp, projection was perfect. The balance and timing were spot on. They were literally and metaphorically in tune with each other, clearly listening as much as singing. It was interesting to see how they didn’t keep to the same formation throughout, with the six voices graded from countertenor to bass, but occasionally mixed it up, presumably for each to be better aware of aspects of particular chords produced in combination with certain colleagues.

In between pieces, they took it in turns to make witty introductions to the next, largely without reference to a script, which added to the instant rapport with the audience. Continuing with the Tudors, they sang of loose women, hunters and pastoral idylls. All this by means of a varied set of madrigals, part-songs and rounds, which are apparently capable of turning just a couple of lines – for example, Henry’s own ‘It is to me a right great joy, Free from danger and annoy’ – into a lengthy affair, full of rich texture. In the section of the programme devoted to Victoria, when music was less about the Royal Court and more about the parlour, John Stainer’s If turn’d topsy turvy you’ll find I can go was similarly just two lines long. The trick with this was that after a seemingly simple rendition, the singers exchanged questioning looks with one another then ostentatiously turned their scores upside-down and sang again, resulting of course in an alternative melody that worked just as well. There was also a rather more serious Stainer piece, Flora’s Queen, extolling the monarch’s beauty and virtue, and culminating in a majestic ‘Long live Victoria!’ – this was put into somewhat irreverent context in the intro: ‘by the way, she died soon afterwards’.

Offsetting the light-hearted moments (and there were plenty), more serious songs showed off the singers’ consummate skill and their ability to draw out the emotion within the music. Representing the reign of Elizabeth I, pieces by both John Hilton and Thomas Weelkes ended with the proclamation ‘Long live fair Oriana!’, a direct reference to the Virgin Queen. Powerful chords hung majestically in the roof of the cathedral. Orlando Gibbons’ The Silver Swan was a vehicle for demonstrating the round/madrigal combination; the story of the death of a mute swan was told in a perfectly poised three-voice round, then reprised as a beautifully blended madrigal. On a more cheery note (and yet still with a morbid edge), fowls also featured in the comical number The Goslings. It wasn’t a case of merely singing this one; our entertainers positively acted it, telling the tale as much through body language and eye contact as words, wringing out maximum mock pathos. Despite the altogether predictable dénouement, the audience lapped it up.

And so to the present reign. Paul Drayton’s A Rough Guide to the Royal Succession, written for the Diamond Jubilee, brought us up to date via a romp through a thousand years of kings and queens, with puns galore and musical stereotypes to suit the age. Great fun and highly recommended. The King’s Singers had also commissioned a series of works in 2002, with the BBC Proms, to mark the Golden Jubilee. Howard Goodall’s All the Queen’s Horses, with words by UA Fanthorpe, is a lively exploration of the Queen’s love of equestrianism. The roll-call of noble beasts was passed from voice to voice with gentle lyricism. The Poet Laureate at the time, Andrew Motion, worked with composer Jocelyn Pook to produce Mobile, a ‘celebration’ of this trapping of modern life. Inevitably, an electronic ringtone – you know the one – intruded into the proceedings and by the end of this hilarious extravaganza it was mimicked by the human voice – all six of them! A round with bells on, you might say.