Anyone who doesn't like the King's Singers doesn't like music. At least not vocal music. The six Englishmen, who will be performing Wednesday night at the Kennedy Center, include a bit of everything in their programs, from obscure religious compositions of the 16th century to modern surrealism; from the "Lamentations" of Jeremiah to Fats Waller's zany "Your Feet's Too Big." And everything they sing is performed with awesome polish, zest, stylistic panache and virtuoso technique.
Their latest album, not yet regularly available in this country but shipped in on a special order to coincide with Wednesday's concert, surveys in depth one corner of their repertoire, though its title reflects another corner. "Madrigal History Tour" (EMI SLS 1078393, two LPs with texts), deliberately echoes the Beatles (whose music the group also sings), but the repertoire is exactly what the title indicates: a survey of secular vocal music from approximately 1450 to 1600.
The word "madrigal" usually conjures up images of airheads dancing in circles and singing "Fa-la-la." The album has samples of this kind of pleasant foolishness in Italian, English and German, by three leading exponents of the form -- Gastoldi, Morley and Hassler. But the madrigal has many other facets, and they are all presented in this album's 42 selections. There is a Latin drinking song, "Vitrum nostrum," that sounds like a hymn, and a Spanish drinking song, "La tricotea," that sounds like a group of rowdy drunks not making much sense. Jannequin's "La Guerre" describes a Renaissance battle, complete with vocal sound effects, and Flecha's "La Bomba" does the same with a shipwreck and rescue at sea. A lot of the songs are about sex, and others are about the contemplation of pure beauty. Two songs, by Arcadelt and Gibbons, evoke the death song of the swan; Mudarra's "Triste estaba el rey David" is a Biblical lament, while Willaert's "Faulte d'argent" is a lamentation on bankruptcy.
In many numbers, the group is superbly accompanied by Anthony Rooley and his Consort of Musicke, which also performs a few purely instrumental pieces. The singing is exquisite. For those unfamiliar with the madrigal form, this collection is an ideal introduction. Devotees will find many old favorites in definitive performances.
Having recorded the string quartets of Ernest Bloch (which it will be playing live tonight at the National Gallery), the Portland String Quartet is now doing the same service for Walter Piston, one of the giants of 20th-century American music. This project is not the kind of automatic money maker that large recording corporations prefer; they may occasionally give some attention to Piston's greatest hit, "The Incredible Flutist," but his more serious work is only marginally represented on records.
The Portland's world premiere recording of Piston's Quartets No. 3 and 4 has just been issued (with catalogue number NR 214) by Northeastern Records, an affiliate of Northeastern University that is giving distinguished service to serious American music. The music is thoughtful, imaginative, playful and vigorous, essentially conservative in its formal structures but with a touch of modern acid in its harmonies. It requires several hearings to deliver its full message and exert all its charm, but it is well worth this effort. The performance is technically proficient and emotionally involved, a dialogue on the highest musical level. The sound closely approximates a live performance, using no superfluous microphones or knob-twiddling to "enhance" the fine natural acoustics of the chapel at Wellesley College where the recording was made.
Also new from Northeastern (NR 218) is a major addition to the discography of Ellen Taafe Zwilich, who won the 1983 Pulitzer for music. Her song cycle "Passages," to texts by A.R. Ammons, graphically chronicles an identity crisis, an encounter with the hard fact of death, and an anguished examination of the gap between hopes and realities. It concludes with reconciliation of a sort: "This is the world we have: take it." The music is deeply personal but also universal; it sharpens the impact of the excellent poems to moments of almost unbearable intensity.
In her String Trio, on the same record, Zwilich finds intriguing possibilities for continuous variation on the material introduced in the first movement. Through many changes of mood and tempo, the motifs run through light and shadow, doubt and self-parody, concluding with an assured, thoughtful and highly lyric self-affirmation. The writing for strings is beautifully idiomatic, as one would expect from a composer who is also a violinist. Both works receive excellent performance from the Boston Musica Viva, with mezzo-soprano Janice Felty, a specialist in contemporary music, in "Passages."
To order either record: $9.98 (postpaid), Northeastern Records, Box 116, Boston, Mass. 02217.
The Vermeer String Quartet, which will be performing twice this week in the Terrace Theater, has just issued a recording of Beethoven's String Quartet No. 13 and the "Grosse Fuge" that was originally composed and later dropped as its final movement. The performance is excellent -- less self-consciously brilliant, tense and heavily accented than performances by American string quartets tend to be, but highly musical, well coordinated and extremely effective in its slightly understated way. The sound on Teldec 6.42982, using the direct metal mastering system, is highly realistic.