Monday 21 October 2013

The Songmen - Demonstrating Versatility

The Songmen - Midnight
The Songmen is an ensemble of six young male singers in an a cappella group, one of a number such taking the Kings Singers as models. The Songmen's repertoire mixes modern takes on popular standards with items from the choral canon. Their first two discs showcase both these talents. Midnight is full of a cappella takes on cool jazz and popular classics with a lot of beat-box and doo-wop style accompaniment. Whilst A Sacred Place consists of the sort of repertoire that many of the singers will be familiar with from their training as Cathedral songmen.

Midnight opens with Mr Bojangles (Walker) arranged by Guy Lewis, one of the group's counter-tenors. The singers are quite closely recorded, but they give the song a lovely relaxed feel, albeit with some nicely on-sync rhythms. This is a very polished performance, and the song has a very contemporary feel with beat-box style percussive accompaniment. Something which seems a speciality of the group and crops up on a number of tracks.

What might be termed the title track, Round Midnight (Hanighen/Monk/Williams) is arranged by the group's other counter-tenor, Ben Sawyer. This uses some lovely close harmonies to give the music quite an edgy feel. The arrangement showcases a variety of fine voices in the group including some notable high counter-tenor singing.

We make quite a leap with Sawyer's arrangement of the Neil Simon number Bright Eyes (Batt), originally written for the film of Richard Adams' Watership Down. Here we have a lovely relaxed tenor solo, with a nicely crisp vocal accompaniment.

Billy Strayhorn's Take the 'A' Train is also arranged by Sawyer, and he was neatly included a segue into Chatanooga Choo Choo. The arrangement features a strong bass solo and some very imaginative wordless accompaniment. Stand by me (King/Leiber/Stoller) is another of Sawyer's arrangements, this time with a snatch of Unchained Melody. Here we have another fine counter-tenor solo and fabulous accompaniment from the rest of the group.

I'm Crazy 'bout my baby (Hill/Waller) is sheer delight. Sawyer's fine arrangement is delivered with crisp infectiousness by the group, the result is very slick but by no means oleaginous. Sawyer's imagination is again at work in Music to watch girls by (Velona/Ramin), the arrangement is deftly multi-layered, but the singers make it great fun.

Smooth Operator (Adu/John) features a neat arrangement by Guy Lewis. Rob Waters, the group#s tenor, made the arrangement of The Way You Look Tonight (Kerry/Fields), full of close, rich harmonies and with some fine solo work. The performance is very seriously done and I thought that a touch of camp would have helped.

Classical Gas (Williams) is wordless and allows Ben Sawyer to let his imagination go in the arrangement. However, even though only 3'18 long, I did find that a little went a long way. Gimme that Wine (Hendrix) comes over as something of a novelty number, in another of Sawyer's arrangements. Finally we get one of Sawyer's own songs, a lyrically ballad with a lovely high counter-tenor solo. Sawyer has set a poem by John Betjemen Inland Waterways, whose subject matter (UK canals) seems slightly at odds with the songs style. But no matter, the result is pleasingly mellifluous.

All the tracks on the album are arranged by members of the group, this is very much The Songmen singing the way they want to sound. The results are highly imaginative and though slick, stay just this side of cheesily annoying. The disc is a great delight but which could, for me, only be improved by that leavening of camp, otherwise the performance is in danger of being a little too under-characterised and veering towards middle-of the road blandness.

The Songmen - A Sacred Place
For a group like The Songmen, the problem is balancing repertory. This is rather easier achieve on disc where each can be devoted to a particular style, it is harder though in concert. Their second disc is devoted to sacred music from Robert Parsons to John Tavener and Urmas Sisask, with a couple of items by group members. A feature of all these highly musical performances is the use of high counter-tenors on the top line; a style which may not appeal to everyone but which the group brings off, by and large, with superb control and aplomb.

They open A Sacred Place with Robert Parson's Ave Maria, a regular favourite in the organ loft and here given a smoothly beautiful performance. They follow this with Thomas Weelke's Gloria in Excelsis Deo in which the groups quite soft grained sound combines with their sense of line to produce a fine blend.

Ben Sawyer's Silence and Sound has some scrunchy harmonies which wander into the jazz range rather nicely, combined to make a pleasantly dramatic piece.

By way of contrast, Victoria's Lamentations of Jeremiah the final lamentation from the set for Holy Saturday sung with smooth legato tone and a rich, dark texture. The performance is nicely sombre with a good balance between parts. It is poised, rather than intense, but with some nice detail in the shaping of the lines. There are a couple of moments when I would have ideally liked more singers, but it is a terrific achievement with just six singers. Byrd's Exsurge Domine (from Cantiones Sacrae of 1591) is frankly a bit soupy for my taste, I wanted something a bit crisper. I did also wonder about the tessitura, as there were suggestions that the top line might have been a bit of challenge for the lead counter-tenor.

Another piece by one of the group, this time Rob Waters' Nolo Mortem Peccatoris  which sets a selection of texts by John Redford (best known as a composer of early English keyboard music) to form a dialogue between God and Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. It shows off the group's close harmony skills in some lovely rich, jazz-inspired chords combined with a chant-like melody. I liked this piece a lot and the fine performance brought out the nice simplicity of Waters' piece.

More simplicity, this time the holy minimalism of Estonian composer Urmas Sisask, his Heliseb valjadel (Ringing in the fields) from his 12 Songs in Honour of the Virgin Maria. The group brings a beautiful clarity to the performance with a fine counter-tenor solo, an impressive achievement though the solo sounds stretched to his limits. Henryk Gorecki's Totus Tuus, written for Pope John Paul II's second visit to Poland in 1987, uses a different sort of simplicity and needs good control from the singers. Here, The Songmen are in superb form and display impressive control, especially in the long decrescendo at the close of the piece, mesmerisingly hypnotic.

Their group's naturally soft-grained tone and beautiful blend produce the sort of homogeneous sound which, to my ear, simply does not quite suit Byrd's Memnto Homo (from Cantiones Sacrae of 1575). I wanted greater sense of definition to the individual lines and crisper attack. In fact, we get this with Byrd's Haec Dies (from Cantiones Sacrae of 1591) which receives a lively and crisply pointed performance with an infectious bounce to it.

John Tavener's Funeral Ikos (the longest piece on the disc) sets words from the Greek Orthodox order for the burial of dead priests and was written in 1981. The Songmen's performance is simply lovely, they display a beautiful feel for Tavener's music, combining the simplicity of his writing with a good feel for the words.

Stanford's six-part motet Beat Quorum Via is something of a choral standard, and here is sung by six voices transposed down a little. The result, with its low bass part, is something of a tour-de-force but comes over as slightly crooned. Still, I rather enjoyed it. They close with a nicely polished performance of Tallis's Te Lucis Ante Terminum.

Of the repertoire on A Sacred Place I rather felt that it was the more modern pieces which worked best and it would be interesting to hear the group release a complete programme of sacred music from the  20th and 21st centuries. That said, listening to these two disc together certainly showcased The Songmen's stunning versatility, though as I said above, I feel that they need to develop a stronger group personality as well.


Mr. Bo Jangles - Walker arr Guy Lewis [3.21]
Round Midnight - Hanighen/Monk/Williams arr Ben Sawyer [3.09]
Bright Eyes - Batt arr Ben Sawyer [3.59]
Take the 'A' Train - Strayhorn arr. Ben Sawyer [3.19]
Stand by Me - King/Leiber/Stoller arr. Ben Sawyer [3.17]
I'm Crazy 'bout My Baby - Hill/Waller arr Ben Sawyer [2.32]
Music to Watch Girls By - Velona/Ramin arr Ben Sawyer [3.31]
Smooth Operator - Adu/John arr Guy Lewis [4.26]
The Way You Look Tonight - Kern/Fields arr Rob Water [3.01]
Classical Gas - Williams arr Ben Sawyer [3.18]
Gimme That Wine - Hendrix arr Ben Sawyer [4.25]
Inland Waterway - Ben Sawyer [4.13]
The Songmen - Guy Lewis, Ben Sawyer, Rob Waters, Ben Cooper, Christopher Monk, Jon Beasley
Recorded 19-27 February 2011
SIX Records SIXCD001B 1CD [42.29]

A Sacred Place

Robert Parsons(c1535-1572) - Ave Maria [4.53]
Thomas Weelkes (1576 - 1623) - Gloria in Excelsis Deo [3.10]
Ben Sawyer (born 1978) - Silence and Sound [2.54]
Tomas Luis de Victoria (1548 - 1611) - Incipit Oratio Jeremiae [8.33]
William Byrd (1540 - 1623) - Exsurge Domine [3.57]
Rob Waters (born 1980) - Nolo Mortem Peccatoris [3.34]
Urmas Sisask (born 1960) - Heliseb Valjadel [3.38]
Henryk Gorecki (1933 - 2010) - Totus Tuus [8.31]
William Byrd (1540 - 1623) - Memento Homo [2.43]
William Byrd (1540 - 1623) - Haec Dies [2.29]
John Tavener (born 1944) - Funeral Ikos [9.33]
Charles Villiers Stanford (1852 - 1924) - Beati Quorum Via [3.37]
Thomas Tallis (1505 - 1585) - Te Lucis Ante Terminum [2.55]
The Songmen - Guy Lewis, Ben Sawyer, Rob Waters, Christopher Monk, Nick Ashby, Jon Beasley
Recorded in the church of St Mary Magdalene, Twyning, Glos 6-8 August 2012
SIX Records SIXCD0002 1Cd [60.34]

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