King’s Singers offer up a BEMF debut of triumphs

By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / June 17, 2011

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The King’s Singers have been around for over 40 years, the Boston Early Music Festival for 30, but it took until Tuesday to bring the two together. Though famous as free-range omnivores, crossing styles and genres, at the core of the Singers’ sound is Renaissance music, the basis of their BEMF debut.

The evening began with ingenious pairings of English madrigals from the 1601 collection “The Triumphs of Oriana’’ with cousins from the collection’s inspiration, the 1592 Italian anthology “Il Trionfo di Dori’’; Alessandro Striggio’s “Ninfe e pastore’’ (“Nymphs and shepherds’’), for example, twinned with Richard Nicolson’s “Sing, shepherds all.’’ The Italian selections, perhaps, were more buoyantly tripping, the English more earthy, digging into the words, varnished with rich major-minor shifts; but the exceptions to such characterizations were so numerous as to emphasize the cross-pollination. After several iterations of personnel (the current lineup’s veteran, countertenor David Hurley, joined the group in 1990), the Singers still make exquisite alloy out of the English choral tradition. The sound is anchored on top and bottom: Hurley and Timothy Wayne-Wright’s pure countertenor gloss, baritones Philip Lawson and Christopher Gabbitas and bass Jonathan Howard laying a rich, double-reed-and-cello floor. In the center, tenor Paul Phoenix (also the group’s most accomplished jester) deftly shifts between poles, a box-to-box midfielder.

The Singers love words — witness their palatal-dental percussive break on the word “cantar’’ in Giovanni de Macque’s “Vaghe ninfe selvagge,’’ or their lingered-over voiced consonants for the murmur of Giovanni Gatoldi’s “Al mormora de liquidi cristalli.’’ Individual interpretive initiative, and uncanny polish and intonation, combine with an effect rather like gently billowing satin: smooth and undulating.

They remain consummate entertainers. The second half of secular French songs by 15th- and 16th-century masters — Clément Janequin, Roland de Lassus, Josquin des Pres — opened with Janequin’s marvelous “Les cris de Paris,’’ street vendors’ pitches assembled into suitably wily polyphony, delivered with over-the-top relish.

As the “Triumphs’’ of the concert’s theme gradually shifted from amorous to military, the comedy was amplified: Josquin’s bumbling-soldier “Scaramella,’’ rendered with overcompensatory snarl; Lassus’s “Dessus le marché d’Arras,’’ a frisky wartime glimpse of the world’s oldest profession; and a showpiece, Janequin’s “La Guerre,’’ a full sonic pageant of Renaissance battle.

The encore was a King’s Singers staple: Striggio’s “Il gioco di Primiera,’’ the battle this time a card game, fully staged, fully clowned. In comparison with the Singers’ harmony, most any contretemps can seem absurd.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at

THE KING’S SINGERS “Triumphs: Renaissance Conquests in Love and War’’

Presented by the Boston Early Music Festival

At: Jordan Hall, Tuesday