The King's Singers: From Byrd to the Beatles
Acorn Media // Unrated // $19.99 // April 11, 2006
Review by Bill Gibron | posted April 4, 2006
Highly Recommended
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The Product:
The power of the human voice to move and enlighten is one of the true measures of genuine artistic talent. Certainly there are individuals who can, journeymen-like, carry a note or two. And in our modern microprocessing world, almost all atonal awfulness can be tweaked and twisted into sounding semi-sublime. But when a person, or group of persons, can take the stage and command it with the sole strength of their varied vocalization, it is indeed magical. For nearly 40 years, The King's Singers of King's College, Cambridge, have explored the realm between a capella and acceptance. Like a walk through the most genial of English country sides as madrigals and hymns fill the air, this sextet is known for creating luxuriant aural bliss with their combination of pitch and personality. Nowhere is this truer than in the new DVD from Acorn Media. Like a sumptuous sound banquet that you never want to stop indulging in, this is individual musicianship of the finest order.

The Plot:
Representing a stellar showcase of pre- and post-modern songstyling, The King's Singers take the stage at Cadogan Hall, Chelsea in the United Kingdom and deliver a spellbinding recital filled with sonorous serenity and a few sneaky surprises. Featuring the efforts of the current version of the chorale, we hear countertenors David Hurley and Robin Tyson, along with tenor Paul Phoenix, baritones Philip Lawson and Chris Gabbitas, as well as bass Stephen Connolly work their melodious enchantment over the following selections:

"Haec Dies" - William Byrd
"O Lord make thy servant Elizabeth our Queen" - William Byrd
"As Vesta was from Latmos Hill Descending" - Thomas Weelkes
"Dessus le Marche d'Arras" - Orlando di Lasso (arr. Mason)
"Il est bel et bon" - Pierre Passereau
"Luci serene e chiare" - Gesulado
"Esti dal" - Zoltán Kodály
"Őnnis on inimene" - Cyrillus Kreek
"Agnus Dei" - Max Reger
"Psalm 121" - Cyrillus Kreek
"Down to the River to Pray" - Traditional (arr. Lawson)
"Honey Pie" - The Beatles (arr. Hart)
"Blackbird" - The Beatles (arr. Runswick)
"Creole Love Call" - Duke Ellington (arr. Kuhn)
"Seaside Rendezvous" - Freddie Mercury (arr. Hart)
"Lullabye (Goodnight my Angel)" - Billy Joel (arr. Lawson)
"Overture to the Barber of Seville" - Gioacchino Rossini (arr Runswick)
"Danny Boy" - Fred Weatherley
"Spem in Alium" - Thomas Tallis
"Masterpiece" - Paul Drayton

In between the selections, we watch the Singers as they enter the studio and attempt the near impossible – they are asked to record the 40 part vocal work "Spem in Alium", double and sometimes triple tracking their individual parts to achieve the multi-faceted piece. Though they make it look effortless, interviews give the group a chance to explain how exhausting, and aggravating, such a process truly is.

The DVD:
Witty, warm, and a bit weird on occasion, the King's Singers represent the pinnacle of sonic solidarity. Though some might find it stuffy, or even dull, there is nothing boring about witnessing the clarion crystallization of voices in perfect sync. Unlike the modern musicianship of so called singers, each one attempting to overshadow the other with their own particular presentation, this is a true group, six individuals who make up a whole much greater than their own sensational parts. Whether it's working though a complex classical piece, or trying to put a new, novel spin on a standard pop song, the Singers strive for a kind of communal completeness. No tune is geared toward a showcase for a single member, and when solos are taken, they quickly meld into the bravado backing being provided. Since they work without instrumentation, and take it upon themselves to provide an "orchestral" element to the overall presentation, we are allowed the privilege of experiencing talent of the highest order. From the piercing highs of Hurley and Tyson to the basso brashness of Mr. Connolly, this is performance as passion. You can tell that this is more than a job for these seasoned pros. Every time they take the stage, it's a chance to get lost in a gorgeous world of artful ambiance. It envelops them, lifting their spirits and their sound. Naturally, such a sentiment moves over and through us as well.

From the opening moments of the show, the King's Singers are all about communication. Not just notes and lyrics, but the overall idea of a piece. For example, they pick three different madrigals to show how different cultures, as well as different parts of the continent, took the musical format and fit it to their needs. Similarly, they draw connections to classic pieces and the works of modern songwriters like Lennon/McCartney and Billy Joel. It might seem odd to hear "Blackbird" given a vocal group interpretation, but the inherent beauty of the melody, matched with the guys' attempt to recreate the original Beatles backing track indicates how amazing the human voice truly is. The same thing happens during "Seaside Rendezvous". Since the song already has a British music hall conceit at its core, the Singers aren't too far away from their audience's area of appreciation. But when they endeavor to mimic the jazz band jive that Freddie Mercury and his Queen mates managed with massive overdubbing and a lot of sweat from producer Roy Thomas Baker, the results more than speak for themselves. They add a level of genius to what is, essentially, six blokes singing a silly little ditty.

But the King's Singers don't believe they are turning their back on tradition by working in a Duke Ellington tune. Instead, they view their efforts as part of the overall expansion of the art of music. During the interview portions of the presentation (some surrounding the recording process, others dealing with more mundane things like touring, and song selection) the guys give away some of their motivation. On the one hand, they realize that people attend their shows to hear ancient artifacts from the past brought back to vivid life. They appreciate and would never attempt to undermine that. On the other hand, there is an entire canon of creativity that exists outside Bach, Beethoven and the realm of rigid traditionalism. While they acknowledge complaints, and the occasional raised eyebrow, they stand by their ever expanding repertoire and point with pride to the response they get beyond the always critical classical community. Indeed, in many ways, the King's Singers are championed for luring the casual music fan into a concert by advertising the incorporation of pop maestros. But it's the folk pieces and the harmonious heritage that ends up getting under one's skin.

This is more than just preservation, however. At the end of the concert, we get to hear the group's effort in taking on the 40 part "Spem in Alium" and it's as amazing as promised. But it also functions as a final argument in the value of such a vocal group. In a world awash in various musical styles, singing is often the last consideration in the overall sound. When thrust out in front like this a capella concert does, the human voice becomes an incredibly powerful instrument. It can be clearly seen in the encore offered here, something called "Masterpiece". Written by Paul Drayton, it's a play on famous composers down through the ages. Since each name is sung in the writer's own unique musical style, it represents a real challenge for the group. Yet they pull it off flawlessly, much to the overall enjoyment of the audience. The crowd reacts strongly to almost everything the Singers offer, and the power of that relationship is obvious. The group really relishes the appreciation, and turns on the charm to wow and win them over. While some might bemoan the popular selections, others may wish that the entire concert was made up of recognizable radio hits. The plain fact is, anybody who loves music will thoroughly enjoy this show. The King's Singers represent talent of the highest quality, and they express it in a way that's truly joyous.

The Video:
Crystal clear and loaded with defining details, The King's Singers: From Byrd to The Beatles is offered in a 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image that is simply shocking in its clarity. From the wonderfully rich colors to the absolutely expert direction, the transfer of this concert is a real winner. About the only lackluster section comes in the recording studio. Since there's limited ability to control lights and camerawork in such a setting, this material looks a little flat. But whenever they are on stage, the Singers look sensational, and it's the technical specifications of the DVD that makes all the difference.

The Audio:
As for the sound side of this DVD, the presentation is near perfect. We are treated to three different aural experiences – PCM Stereo (good), Dolby Digital 5.1 (better) and DTS 5.1 (best) – and if you want to recreate the concert experience with your home theater set up, stick with either 5.1 track. The DTS is a little cleaner, and provides far more spatial ambience during the songs, yet Acorn Media has made sure that, even in the two channel set up, the show is flawless in its approach and acoustics. You really get the chance to enjoy the singers' style and vocalizing, turning something tuneful into an equally timeless treat.

The Extras:
In truth the bonus material is mixed up in the concert itself. You can choose, via the menu, to simply listen to each song without the added interview inserts, but since the conversations shed light on the entire King's Singers approach to music, it's worth making them a part of the show proper. Otherwise, the only traditional bit of complimentary content is an insert featuring a list of the songs and some very interesting program notes. While not the most amazing collection of features in the digital medium, they do serve the showcase well.

Final Thoughts:
Whether you dig the whole concept of classical a capella singing, or simply want a collection of traditional songs interlaced with a few modern masterworks, The King's Singers: From Byrd to The Beatles is a fabulous introduction to this longtime British institution. Easily earning a rating of Highly Recommended, this is the joy of music in all its varied styles. Hats off to David Hurley, Robin Tyson, Paul Phoenix, Philip Lawson, Chris Gabbitas and Stephen Connolly. They are keeping alive a hallowed heritage of timeless tunes with the very power of their performance. Their name truly befits their abilities. They offer true aural royalty, a rare breed of musician who can rely on their voice, not technological variables, to get their point across. Even if the idea of madrigals makes your skin crawl, or you believe that boy bands represent the zenith of vocal groups, you should give this DVD a try. It's a beautiful sometimes baroque, journey through the higher echelons of harmony, and the magic that is perfectly pitched melody.

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