King’s Singers, Acoustic Triangle, Choir of Royal Holloway: Lullaby of Birdland
(Cadogan Hall, June 15th 2013. Review by Andrew Cartmel)
Cadogan Hall, in all its art deco-inflected ecclesiastical elegance, hosted one of the most unusual concerts of the season, a tribute to George Shearing and Richard Rodney Bennett.
The set began with Gwilym Simcock on piano and Malcolm Creese on double bass (two points of the Acoustic Triangle) accompanying the six King’s Singers — David Hurley (countertenor), Timothy Wayne-Wright (countertenor), Paul Phoenix (tenor), Christopher Bruerton (baritone), Christopher Gabbitas (baritone), Jonathan Howard (bass) — in George Shearing’s Shakespeare settings.
The intertwining of jazz and classical music, which was in many ways the point of the evening, was immediately in evidence with Simcock’s dexterous, funky piano contrasting against the ethereal countertenor voices of the King’s Singers. Malcolm Creese’s bass managed to sound both rich and sparse in support of Simcock’s jaunty jazz on It Was a Lover and His Lass. The mood shifted to a wistful melancholy for Who is Sylvia with meditative bowing from Creese and solemn, plangent playing from Simcock to accompany the seamless harmony of the singers.
Richard Rodney Bennett’s 1993 settings of John Donne were sung a cappella, with the King’s Singers coming into their own in this bravura set of interweaving vocals which verged on the avant-garde. When they sang It Tolls for Thee, the listener’s scalp prickled. Then the massed forces of the Choir of Royal Holloway took to the stage under the direction of Rupert Gough to sing Bennett’s settings of Verses on Saint Cecilia’s Day and Colloquy with God, with lyrics adapted by Bennett’s sister, the poet Meg Peacocke. The beautiful cloud of voices was shaped and sculpted by the conductor. The sound was modernist but smoothly contoured and lovely.
Acoustic Triangle joined the choir, complete with its third member, Tim Garland, who began to play unaccompanied, a gorgeous soprano sax solo. As the delicate piano and warm sonorous bass joined in we were ushered back towards the realm of pure jazz. The choir retired to be replaced by the six King’s Singers and, accompanied by the trio of players, they proceeded to go to town.
Richard Rodney Bennett’s close harmony vocal arrangements were strongly influenced by the work of American combos like Singers Unlimited, the Four Freshmen and the Hi-Los, as was demonstrated by the four Gershwin songs. Garland, now on tenor sax, was immediately and raunchily to the fore in It Ain’t Necessarily So and the King’s Singers got groovy with their “doo-doo-doo” accompaniment. Throughout the Gershwin set the trio supplied minimalist, deft vignettes to frame the vocals. On Sweet and Low Down Garland provided a virtuoso boppish compressed solo, Simcock played rolling roadhouse piano and Creese plucked and slapped his bass. On Our Love is Here to Stay the trio sat it out and the song was delivered in hypnotic rising and falling waves of close harmony vocals.
After the interval the King’s Singers performed Alexander L’Estrange’s arrangements of gems from the Great American Songbook. My Funny Valentine was an ethereal tapestry of sound while Cole Porter’s Let’s Misbehave was a jocular period piece, played for laughs but with a seriously impressive precision pulse.
The singers retired to let the trio take over for standards associated with Shearing. On Cole Porter’s All of You Simcock stood up and reached into the grand piano to pluck the strings by hand. It was almost a Sun Ra Arkestra moment.
The King’s Singers rejoined the trio with ingeniously deployed voices for Neil Richardson’s arrangement of Over the Rainbow. Garland played exquisite rhapsodic soprano over the gentle beauty of Simcock’s water-droplet piano, Creese’s warm, steady bass keeping the pulse.
George Shearing’s Lullaby of Birdland was the final number of this memorable set with the King’s Singer’s voices fluttering and flying in the hall like, yes, birds.