Pianist Emanuel Ax and the King's Singers appeared Sunday night at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall with a program enigmatically called "Night and Day." It mixed "night songs" -- the German lied, and piano pieces associated with it -- with a bunch of other things ("Day"). Everything was so well performed that the thematic inconsistency hardly mattered, but some of the night music surrendered its intimacy to the formality and sheer acreage of the hall.
The King's Singers are too well-tuned and deliciously musical not to have sung songs by Schubert and Brahms very beautifully indeed. Their pitch was so true it gleamed, though high notes supplied by countertenors seemed at times to relocate the lied to merry England. Ax played intimate pieces by the same composers with his back to the audience because the piano had been angled to favor his accompaniment of the singers. Its placement reflected his solos into the right wing of the stage, where much of the sound disappeared. Ax does have a superbly lyrical touch in romantic music, and his crisp voicing in Bach's First Partita was done with the fingers alone -- he did not touch the pedals.
The wonderfully sly, enormously talented Comedian Harmonists (five singers and a pianist) were headliners in Europe in the 1930s. Six Harmonists arrangements were gleefully revitalized by the King's Singers, whose instrumental sound effects and elastically stretched harmonies were always witty and often overtly hilarious. This is tricky material to master, but the King's Singers got everything just right. The program was presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society.
-- Ronald Broun