The Shout, Purcell Room, London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Radical by reputation, Orlando Gough's hand-picked choral group have come out in their Christmas show as a king-size King's Singers. The show's third run has the settled air of an annual fixture, complete with a serious-minded, not too disturbing first half and a crescendo of camp for the second. It's brilliantly sung and packed with specially composed work, but from its irrelevant allusive title (A Day In The Life) to its unfortunate choice of clothing, it comes packaged in the colours of Middle England. Even the buzz in the hall had a Home Counties accent.

The format was carols and readings. While there were only a few traditional numbers, and those in fresh arrangements, the Nine Lessons template remained in the background. Instead of explicitly religious celebration the initial focus was on songs of suffering and hope, and in the readings - the majority of them short, unfamiliar texts written between 1850 and 1950 - an emerging vein of wonder. A couple of visions from concentration camps added to the sense of looking towards the roots of Judaeo-Christian experience. Then there was a birth story, a wry north-London one vintage 1984, and the light was switched firmly on for the rest of the evening.

Music regularly showed the hand of Gough, with the usual rhythmic vigour and occasional over-egged harmonies. The dominant feature was that most of the singers put in a piece of their own. They made for a constant current of surprise, from Melanie Pappenheim's aphoristic "Forty Words for Snow" to Carol Grimes's "Song of Work" with metal percussion, insistent chant and long stylised howls - a revealing insight into the all-round musicianship of London's professional choral and session singers.

Once the evening lightened up, results grew erratic. Some of the attempts at Oxbridge-meets-barber-shop style lab-oured hard. It wasn't easy to get the original King's Singers repertoire right, and it took Jeremy Birchall in "Blue Moon" to show how it ought to go. On we went through a setting of the ingredients list for a commercial Christmas pudding, complete with E numbers to a hymn of praise for a bird's anus. The audience joined in an updated "Twelve Days of Christmas" and staggered off home looking pleased with themselves.

Cosy it may have been, but the singing was relaxed and precise, an object lesson in putting some advanced techniques to entertaining use. Considering that The Shout trades on its supposed diversity, it was a concern that the essentially European sound could swallow up voices as individual as Mike Henry and Yogeswaran. At least Henry's personal classical-meets-R&B delivery had several solo spots - they made him more or less the star of the evening. For Yogeswaran's flight of imagination there was only his own piece, a south-Indian Ave Maria using the chorus for drone. It was a high point, but completely isolated in style.