The King’s Singers
rec. 2022/2023, Britten Studio, Snape Maltings, UK
Texts and English translations in the booklet
Signum Classics SIGCD739 [67]

The idea for Wonderland, as the substantial booklet says, came from the King’s Singers’ interest in folk tales and stories for children. And yet, this is no ordinary kids’ CD. It should appeal to adults and older children, Ligeti’s Nonsense Madrigals especially, but many of the other selections as well. “Wonderland” partly refers to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures, Ligeti’s favourite book. Individual Nonsense Madrigals are placed between the other pieces, so that they form a kind of continuous musical journey. I consider this format successful, and one can always programme them separately as a whole work if so desired. Appropriately, the singers were also celebrating Ligeti’s centenary with this album. I found many of the pieces convincing, even delightful, but there is no question that Ligeti contributed the real masterpiece here.

The disc begins with Ashita no uta, or Song for Tomorrow, by the Japanese composer Makiko Kinoshita. According to the anonymous notes, she is one of “Japan’s foremost contemporary choral composers”. She wrote the piece for the King’s Singers’ tour in Japan in 2020, which was later cancelled due to the pandemic. The piece, sung in Japanese, reflects the turning of the Earth. A more traditional composition in its harmony, it reminds me of the popular music by these singers – and quite the opposite of the Ligeti. I found it rather warm and comforting.

It is quite a shock to go from Kinoshita’s piece to the first of Ligeti’s Nonsense Madrigals. Two Dreams and Little Bat is undoubtedly the most challenging work on the disc. With the lyrics of three separate poems sung simultaneously, it gives the King’s Singers a real workout—one they conquer superbly. I compared this new account with that in Sony’s Ligeti Edition. While both are equally well performed, there is no question of the superiority of this recording. Everything is heard clearly, with greater presence, and one can follow the text much more easily. This is true of the other madrigals, although none of them presents quite the same level of difficulty. Those who have the invaluable Ligeti Edition may well be satisfied with that account, but the new one brings an altogether higher level of comprehension. For me, at least, it alone is worth the price of the disc.

Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo set A Dream within a Dream to a dark and bleak poem by Edgar Allen Poe. It is divided into three short movements, with interesting harmony and entirely tonal. After Ligeti’s humourous Cuckoo in the Pear-Tree comes Alive by Francesca Amewudah-Rivers, a British composer, actor and sound engineer of Nigerian heritage, who also wrote the lyrics. The notes say that the work “sits somewhere between a pop song, folk song, and choral anthem”. The definite pop overtones suit the King’s Singers’ more traditional style well.

Again, it is quite a leap from this to Ligeti’s The Alphabet with its sustained micro-polyphony similar to the style of his Lux Aeterna or Atmospheres. Japanese film composer Joe Hisaishi (born Mamoru Fujisawa) follows with I was there, his first a cappella choral work. It contains Japanese phrases interspersed with ones in English. Repetitious in a Minimalist sort of way, it becomes rather tiresome with its reiterated “I was there”, “I’ll be there” and so on. Ligeti’s The Story of Flying Robert gives necessary relief.

Next comes the more substantial Tricksters by Judith Bingham. The booklet says: “The premise of the piece is that competitive and mischievous tricksters from various different parts of the world – Earthmaker (Gaia), Coyote, Loki, Kawku-Ananse and the Moon-Hare – all make their claim to having brought fire into the world.” It is quite entertaining, with elements of jazz and declamation, but it concludes pensively on a bluesy chord.

Australian composer Malcolm Williamson’s The Musicians of Bremen, which follows Ligeti’s passacaglia- form The Lobster Quadrille, is based on a German folk tale collected by the Brothers Grimm. It is the story of a donkey, a dog, a cat and a cockerel; afraid of their masters, they leave home to join an orchestra in Bremen. Williamson, who was probably best known as a former Master of the Queen’s Music, composed the piece several years before he was appointed to that position. Filled with the sounds typical of its animal protagonists, it must have been a blast to perform. The last line, “Off with his head!”, segues fittingly into the last of the Ligeti items, A long, sad tale, with a text from Alice in Wonderland.

The programme wraps up with a composition the King’s Singers recorded before and included on their twentieth-anniversary sampler on EMI. Time Piece by Paul Patterson reimagines the creation story with time, causing the downfall of mankind in the Garden of Eden. It contains all kinds of clock sounds like “tick” and “tock”, “cuckoo” and even the Westminster chimes. It is a fun piece, and it becomes really jazzy. This performance is over two minutes shorter than the earlier one, but because of the tempo. Rather, the singers conclude the work on the whispered “TIME”, while the previous version continues with humming and singing about gentlemen sleeping and so on. I think the new version is all the more effective when it simply ends. It is long enough anyway, and the earlier one does not add anything meaningful. This new account also seems more animated, and the recorded sound is better.

These are splendid performances with sound to match and a booklet with complete texts and informative notes. The release should appeal to all fans of the King’s Singers and their distinctive style.

Leslie Wright

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György Ligeti (1923-2006)
Nonsense Madrigals (1988-1993)
Makiko Kinoshita (b. 1956)
Ashita no uta (Song for Tomorrow) (2020)
Ola Gjeilo (b. 1978)
A Dream within a Dream (2022)
Francesca Amewudah-Rivers (b. 1998)
Alive (2022)
Joe Hisaishi (b. 1950)
I was there (2022)
Judith Bingham (b. 1952)
Tricksters (2020)
Malcolm Williamson (1931-2003)
The Musicians of Bremen (1972)
Paul Patterson (b. 1947)
Time Piece (1972)