Reviewed Friday 20th June 2014

The King's Singers: The Great American Songbook is very different from the usual singer or group in front of an orchestra. What we get is some sensational six part a cappella male voice harmony, and completely revised versions of the familiar songs.

The original members of the sextet, formed in 1968, were choral scholars at King's College, Cambridge but, with many personnel changes over the half century since then, none of the original members are still involved. the current members are countertenors, David Hurley and Timothy Wayne-Wright, tenor, Paul Phoenix, baritones, Christopher Bruerton and Christopher Gabbitas, and bass, Jonathan Howard. The founder members would have been proud of the current group.

Alexander L'Estrange, who wrote many of the marvellous arrangements, is also a jazz pianist and double bassist, so he brings that intimate knowledge of these songs to his writing. We hear what sounds like a musical tag team as the melody is passed from one to another, supported by exciting counterpoint.

Harold Arlen's and Ted Koehler's Get Happy opened the performance, its evangelical feel reminding us that the group are known for around 150 albums that include madrigals, folk songs, and religious works, originally those found in the King's College library. They also commission new works, as well as reworking contemporary music. This first number brings in vocally created percussive and instrumental sounds, another of the recognisable attributes of this group. Staying with Harold Arlen, they continued quickly with I've Got the World on a String, a big hit for Frank Sinatra.

Between the songs there were the usual introductions, but delivered with a good serving of dry British wit, such as the confession that they were all being very casual, since their jackets were unbuttoned.

George Gershwin was a major contributor to the Great American Songbook, and so My Love is Here to Stay, in a very sensitive version, was a fine tribute to him. Cole Porter is also an important composer and his Begin the Beguine suited their style so well. Porter's Under My Skin was another terrific arrangement, and his Let's Misbehave gave an opportunity for some additional humour.

Cy Coleman's The Best is Yet to Come was not entirely accurate, as we had already some great songs, and 'more' of the best is yet to come would have described the evening more correctly. Composers and songs followed hot on the heels of one another, all getting the unique combination of respect and imagination that has enabled the King's Singers to maintain their popularity for so long, and continually engage new audiences.

Although the 'choreography' amounted to little more than occasionally walking from one tableau to another that was unimportant as that was not what we came for. The singing by these six suavely dressed artists was the draw card here, with the humour an added bonus. It is important to remember that in an ensemble the voices must blend and that simply being a great individual singer is not enough. This is where the King's Singers really stand out, as they always have, with the six voices perfectly matched, and a focus on the finest precision of performance.

They thrilled their old fans, pleasantly surprised those to whom they were a relatively unknown quantity, and left the audience wanting more.

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From This Author Barry Lenny

Barry Lenny Born in London, Barry was introduced to theatre as a small boy, through being taken to see traditional Christmas pantomimes, as well as discovering jazz (read more...)

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