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Cumnock Tryst: King’s Singers

Trinity Church, Cumnock

For 55 years The King’s Singers have remained a popular, stable and self-regenerating national musical treasure. Bursting onto our telly screens in the sixties – notably on peak-time Saturday night variety shows – the posh boys from the poshest Cambridge college charmed the nation’s ears with a smooth spread of bespoke a cappella originals and arrangements, anything from hifalutin’ Byrd to down-to-earth Beatles. Now, like a collective Doctor Who, in their umpteenth reincarnation, the group are held with great affection as widely as ever.

It was easy to see why in this easy-flowing, classy Cumnock Tryst programme they presented on Friday night. It was a loosely-assembled sequence of “celebrations”, but with each King’s Singer contributing personably to the intertwining spoken narrative and its various nods to the centenary years of Hungarian modernist composer György Ligeti and Walt Disney, Byrd and Weelkes’ quatercentenaries, Vaughan Williams 150th, among others, what looked thinnish on paper materialised as an absorbing hour-plus feast of first-class entertainment.

What also contributed to the freshness of the presentation was the interpretational signing for the hard of hearing by Paul Whittaker. Even for those of us unfamiliar with this language, Whittaker’s expressive physicality was a fascinating, added dimension that enhanced the presentation meaningfully and beautifully, all the more helpful when the complexity of some of the music occasionally obscured the clarity of the texts.

The musical journey was smooth but adventurous. Days from Even Such is Time by Bob Chilcott (a former King’s Singer) offered a crisp and contemporary call to action, before the silvery perfection of Renaissance anthems and motets by Byrd and Weelkes. The joy in these earlier works was to witness that six-part group’s instant switching between moments of luxurious homogeneity and pertinent internal combat. 

The programme featured two of Ligeti’s whimsical Lewis Carroll settings from Nonsense Madrigals, as much theatrical as musical delights, the preamble to which – notably the Lobster Quadrille – causing considerable mirth with the evening’s other signer as he attempted to translate the near impossible and implausible.

A brief whiff of Vaughan Williams – his willowy Shakespearean setting of Over Hill, Over Dale – gave way to two short pastoral works by Swedish composer Hugo Alfvén, the calm simplicity of In Our Meadow and bucolic spring of And The Maiden Joins The Ring. But with a sudden change of tack, the multi-ethnic background of American-born Gabriella Lena Frank made its mercurial mark in the animated obstinacy and wit of Hechicera (The Sorceress), brilliantly captured in an effervescent performance.

James MacMillan may not be celebrating a significant birthday of his own this year, but who was to deny The King’s Singers the indulgence of simply celebrating his presence at the festival he founded, and the fact he has written so much over the years for the ensemble? 

They opened their short set with the iridescent unpredictability of In The Blue Lobster Cafe, a spicy setting of poet Michael Symmons Roberts, before enchanting this Cumnock audience with the composer’s easeful arrangement of John Cameron’s O, chi, chì mi na mòrbheanna, and of his famously melting melody to William Soutar’s poem, The Tryst.

The transition to Disney songs was swift, the singers dispensing with their music stands and formalised stance to regroup in close-harmony huddle, a cosy engagement that charmed the heart-warming lyricism of Toy Story 2’s When She Loved Me, and inflamed the raucousness of Dumbo’s When I See An Elephant Fly.

But it was to The Beatles that this immaculate ensemble turned for a couple of non-negotiable encores: Chilcott’s silken arrangement of Yesterday, the melody mostly entrusted to Patrick Dunachie’s light and airy countertenor;  and the lesser-known Honey Pie, Jonathan Howard’s sudden razzy Louis Armstrong interjection sealing his reputation as the King’s Singers jester-in-residence.

With perfection at every turn, not least in the unshakeably purity of their intonation, the King’s Singers brand seems assured for another half-century at least.

Ken Walton