MUSIC / Swing song: Nick Kimberley on New Year with the King's Consort

It was standing-room only for the King's Consort's New Year's Eve Celebration at the Wigmore Hall, and no wonder: not a Strauss waltz, nor a Tchaikovsky pas de deux in sight. Instead, wall-to-wall baroque from a leading period instrument ensemble - a cleansing purgative after the seasonal excesses.

Robert King, who directs the group from the keyboards, shuffled on stage like a shy head boy at the annual prize- giving. The air of gauche diffidence may be misleading, for not only does King, with sly bravado, call his group the King's Consort; he also allows the programme to state that 'Robert King is Britain's leading baroque conductor of the younger generation'. Any comments, Ivor Bolton, Paul McCreesh, Nicholas McGegan?

Whatever his position in the conductors' league table, there is no doubt that King has assembled a lively set of musicians who can function equally well as a full orchestra or, as here, a chamber ensemble. The concert opened with small portions from Telemann's Musique de table, undersold in the programme as 'high-class 'wallpaper' music'. Performed with spirit, Telemann is more than that. As that famous baroque specialist, Duke Ellington, said: 'It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing,' and King knows how to get that swing. While the strings darted and fizzed, Anthony Robson and Crispian Steele- Perkins sparred on oboe and trumpet, a lovely combination, with the valveless trumpet's beguilingly dry timbre forever flirting with the risk of missing the note.

The pace set, King moved on to the centrepiece, Vivaldi's Gloria. His five singers functioned both as chorus - never quite raising the roof - and, with greater success, as soloists. Susan Gritton, dominant in ensemble, revealed an operatic flexibility in her solo at 'Domine Deus', her clear tone afloat on enchanting oboe phrases. Michael George's bass rumbled threateningly, and Robin Blaze's bright falsetto hinted that he is a counter- tenor to watch.

Whether he achieves the eminence of the evening's other falsettist, James Bowman, remains to be seen. In Vivaldi and, later, in a solo aria from Handel's oratorio Theodora, Bowman showed that his vocal craft remains intact after 25 years in the business. The tone may sometimes approach white-out, long phrases may cause problems, yet the top of the voice retains its assured purity, and he shapes the line as scrupulously as ever.

While nothing that followed Vivaldi was quite as spirited, there was plenty to enjoy, especially in Handel's anthem I will magnify thee, O Lord, with vocal complement rising to seven. Shifting between harpsichord and chamber organ, Robert King kept rhythms sharp and light, in Handel as in brief pieces by Purcell and Telemann again.

Everyone gave the impression of enjoying performing together. No doubt the prospect of midnight revels helped, but this was an idiomatic, energising show. In a stately, Wigmore Hall kind of way, the crowd went wild, and no one complained of having been deprived of New Year viennoiseries.

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