Swingle Singers: Swingling Telemann. Philips 586 735-2 (2002)

Swingle Singers: Swingling Telemann. Philips 586 735-2 (2002, digipak), barcode  731458673521

Compiled (with “Les Romantiques / Getting Romantic”, Philips 586 736-2) in  Philips 586 737-2 (2002), barcode 731458673729

Compiled (with 10 other digipak-CDs of the Paris Swingles) in Swingle Singers. (11 CDs) Philips 982 632-5 (2005)



Recorded 1966

Tired of Mussorgsky-Ravel (and Rimsky-Korsakov) ? Try Telemann-Swingle
Originally posted on Amazon.com, 14 March 2011

If you are anything like me, you like to hum (or whistle) your favorite tunes. I do it constantly, without even thinking about it: walking on the street, washing the dishes, ironing… listening to the records, of course – and not to forget the legendary showering! The beginning of Mozart’s 40th symphony often comes to my mouth – you know, the famous ti-du-dum, ti-du-dum, ti-du-dum TUM!, but it can be anything I’ve been listening to, from Bach to Stravinsky (or Varèse: the beginning of Ameriques or Octandre make for nice humming or whistling). Of course, I hum only the first few bars. I’d need the score of a piece I know well to hum further (I’m bragging, of course).

The Swingle Singers are to that what Picasso is to your kid’s drawings. I love it, I find it immensely appealing and moving in ways that are difficult to express. It is often said (and I agree) that music (at least before the advent of the 20th-century atonal and serial avant-garde), even when purely instrumental, is vocal music transcribed for other instruments. Mozart’s Piano Concertos have even been described as quasi-operas. Some composers have needed the instrument (mostly the piano, but it was the guitar for Berlioz) to compose (it is what Stravinsky claimed) but many first hear those tunes in their inner ear and possibly sing them, before committing them to the music sheet. Therefore, classical instrumentalists are asked not just to play the notes but to “sing” them, e.g. to emulate the very characteristics and inflexions of the voice, even when their instrument is of a fundamentally different acoustic nature, a plucking instrument like the harpsichord or a percussion instrument like the piano (leading, by reaction, composers like Stravinsky or Bartok to assert the percussive nature of the instrument – which however was never at the detriment of singable melody). What the Swingles do is to reverse the whole process, and return these instrumental compositions to their vocal origin and essence. That is, I would suggest, what makes it so deeply touching, and irresistible. It is like subconsciously recognizing your own kid’s drawings (I mean: your own drawings as a kid) in a Picasso.

This “Swingling Telemann” album, published in 1966 on Philips  840.578 PY (in the US under the title “Rococo À Gogo” on Philips PHS 600 214 – there was also a Dutch release with the French label number and US title and cover – link will open new tab to entry on discogs.com) was their fifth, in their original, Paris-based lineup, under the leadership of their founder Ward Swingle (the group is still in existence, now based in London, and of course its personnel has changed many times since; Swingle retired in 1984, but still acted as musical adviser and sometimes arranger until his passing in 2015). First was “Jazz Sébastien Bach(“Bach’s Greatest Hits” in the US), their seminal and chart-making outing in 1963 (with a sequel in 1968 “Le volume 2 de Jazz Sébastien Bach” aka “Back to Bach” in the US; the two have been reissued on a single disc, Jazz Sebastian Bach, Philips 824 703-2).

The Billboard, 17 Sept. 1966

Then came “Going Baroque (de Bach aux Baroques)” (1964) and “Swinging Mozart” (1965, alias “Anyone for Mozart?” in the US), both CD-reissued in 1986 on Philips 826 946-2Anyone for Mozart, Bach, Handel, Vivaldi?“. Those were followed by “Getting Romantic” (US edition 1965, published in France as “Les Romantiques“). All, and the next ones made until 1972 for Philips by the original, Paris-based ensemble, have been reissued individually in the 2000s, in a series of eleven digipak CDs (also grouped by pairs of two) that were straight reissues from the original albums, short timings and all (“all” including, for those I’ve been able to compare with the earlier CD reissues mentioned above, sonics artificially made louder and stereo spread artificially made wider), then gathered in 2005 in an eleven CD box (link and review with links to individiual releases soon to be added). A bad case of trying to milk us cows.

So this “Swingling Telemann” times 30:24 – but the quality of the music-making is overriding, provided you can find it at a reasonable price. With no comparison to other remasterings, the sonics so sound remarkable, with great stereo spread. In those days the group still played with a jazz instrumental section: double-bass pizzicatti and (usually brushed) drums. The new group established in 1973 after the Paris ensemble had disbanded became, and remains, a purely a capella vocal ensemble; not that they’ve done away with drums and double-bass pizz: they sing them. Ward Swingle’s arrangements are as masterful as in the previous (and next) recordings. All the hallmarks that make the Swingle arrangements so unique and winning are there: the unfailingly silky timbre and pitch-precision of the ensemble, the purity of the sopranos in the stratospheric reaches, the timbral softness of the men (try the solo baritone José Germain on track 12); the mind-boggling volubility of the faster movements (for example on tracks 3 or 5) or of the rhythmic accompaniments; the unique scatting techniques that was truly one of Ward Swingle’s major contributions to contemporary vocal technique; and, while the vocal virtuosity never fails to impress and lift one’s spirits, even more profoundly heart-stabbing, I find, is the dreamy, caressing and sinuous soprano voices (two ladies are credited as “contraltos” by I hear nothing else than sopranos I and II) over rhythmic scatting accompaniment (as in tracks 2, 4, 10, 11).

What you lose to an extent with these arrangements of Telemann and other “minor” – compared to Bach, Vivaldi and Handel – baroque composers (Couperin, Muffat, Daquin, Marcello, Quantz) is the “old pal” factor. When the Swingles sing the “hits” of the “major” baroque composers or of Mozart or Beethoven, one of the appeals, other than the quality of their transcriptions, is hearing the old warhorses in a new guise: it’s like having your wife show up in a new, sexy lingerie, giving a new thrill to the old routine. Here, there are no such “hits”, and many of these pieces are likely to be first encounters (and even if not, the original piece is likely not to have stuck in your memory to the point that you will recognize it). So this is probably not the CD to begin your Swingle collection with. Better go to the original Bach-CD reissues, the “Anyone for Bach-Mozart-Handel-Vivaldi” CD, the more recent Mozart CD on Virgin (A Cappella Amadeus – A Mozart Celebration). But make no mistake: in Ward Swingle’s arrangements, all these pieces sound as major as Bach, Vivaldi, Haendel and Mozart. And chances are that, when your are, like me, hooked, you will never get enough of it.

Really, Ward Swingle’s modesty and relative self-effacement is unfair to himself. After all, everybody speaks of the Pictures at an Exhibition of Mussorgsky-Ravel (and of Scheherazade of Rimsky-Korsakov), right? So Swingle’s arrangements should be known as Bach-Swingle, Mozart-Swingle and Telemann-Swingle.

Comments are welcome