Hey nonny nonny no – or in this case, yes please, as a classic recording of royal-themed music from The King’s Singers steams into the ensemble’s 50th-anniversary FLAC streaming treat. It’s replete with that distinctive style in which hard work and high seriousness is concealed with a shiny veneer of nonchalant wit and charm: that impression of old-fashioned, English-gentlemen clubability that has made the group such an institution across its long career.
There’s much more to the album than the Tudor trolly-lolly, too, notably with some beautiful and rather expert writing from King Henry VIII himself and exceptionally beautiful classics from Orlando Gibbons (The Silver Swan), John Dowland (Flow, O my tears) and others. Nor is the collection confined to the Renaissance: there is Victoriana from Walter Parratt, Parry and Elgar, and the substantial set of ‘Choral Dances’ from the opera Gloriana by Benjamin Britten, pieces that mingle aspects of Elizabethan musical techniques with Britten’s own idiom and certainly merit extraction from their somewhat patchy original context. Paul Drayton’s ‘A Rough Guide to the Royal Succession’ is good, clever fun (“And then there’s Cromwell – but we don’t mention him”) even if perhaps the piece slightly overstays its welcome.
Recorded in 2012, this is a typically well-chosen programme, with plenty of contrast and variety; moreover, the various numbers from the two Elizabethan eras illuminate one another most satisfactorily. The singers – David Hurley and Timothy Wayne-Wright (countertenors), Paul Phoenix (tenor), Philip Lawson, Chistopher Gabbitas and sometimes Christopher Bruerton (baritone) and Jonathan Howard (bass) – bring to the whole their trademark clarity, precision, careful balance, splendid diction and sparky rhythmic sense. The Victorian selections perhaps come off least happily – let’s face it, their pomposity can sound almost cringe-inducing beside the light-touch sophistication of Tudor-era polyphony on the one hand and the acidic crunch of Britten’s harmonic language on the other.
It does make for good historical perspective and narrative, though, and the ensemble brings the same attentive idiomatic delivery to them as to the rest of the songs. There’s a level of excellence below which these performers simply never slip.
Jessica Duchen’s music journalism has appeared in The Independent, The Guardian and The Sunday Times. She is the author of a number of novels (most recently Ghost Variations, published in 2016), biographies and plays. A recent project included an opera libretto for composer Roxanna Panufnik (for Garsington Opera 2017). Her popular blog JDCMB has run since 2004.
Performance: four stars Sound: five stars
Royal Rhymes and Rounds The King’s Singers Signum SIGCD307