The Swingle Singers: A Cappella Amadeus – A Mozart Celebration. Virgin Classics VC 7 91208-2 (1991), barcode 075679120823
Reissue (with “Bach Hits Back“) Virgin 5 61472 2 (1998, 2 CDs), barcode 724356147225:
Reissue Virgin 364798 2 (2006), barcode 094636479828:
Recorded at CTS Studios, Wembley, recording dates not indicated
Returning the music to its very essence
Originally posted on Amazon.com, 9 March 2011
Like, I suppose, everybody else, I find myself naturally humming or whistling my favorite tunes, under the shower, cooking or washing the dishes, gardening, walking on the street from one place to the other, without even realizing it. And this is probably as natural to mankind as breathing.
The Swingle Singers are to that what Picasso is to your three-year old’s drawings. Since their first “Jazz Sebastian Bach” album in 1963 (best reissue to CD is on Philips 824 703-2, which gathers also the 1968 sequel “Jazz Sébastien Bach 2”), in whatever line-up of singers (the original members, including the group’s founder and leader Ward Swingle, are long gone, although Swingle still acts as musical advisor and arranger), they’ve developed a unique and dazzling approach to the classics, giving an irresistible kick to compositions you thought you knew from inside out.
And this Mozart album, originally published in 1991 by Virgin (exact recording dates not indicated, Tom Cunniffe on Jazzhistoryonline give 1989), is another winner. What makes the art of the Swingle Singers so irresistible is a combination of factors: one, their choice of those most popular tunes, those that every lover of Classical music will know on the back of his tongue. Incidentally, Mozart’s 40th Symphony – you know, the famous “ti-du-tum, ti-du-tum, ti-du-tum TI !” is one of those I find myself unwittingly humming most often – but of course, I stop after a few bars, I don’t sing the symphony COMPLETE like the Swingles here. But the timbral novelty and seductiveness offered by the vocal transcription of (in most cases) instrumental and orchestral music offers a freshening and ear-catching way of hearing the old warhorses
Two, their clever alternation between (on average) two lively and dynamic numbers (the Magic flute overture track 1, the 40th symphony’s fast movements tracks 2, 3 and 5, the finale of the String Quartet track 6, the finale of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik track 9 and Finale of the Horn Concerto track 10, Gigue track 13, Quam olim Abrahae from the Requiem track 16 and Turkish March track 17) and more plangeant ones (solemn introduction to the Magic Flute overture, Ave Verum Corpus track 6, Cosi’s “Un’ aura amorosa” track 8, Don Giovanni’s Canzonetta track 11, Cosi’s Terzetto “Soave vento” track 12, the slow movement from the 21st Piano Concerto, track 14, etc): the balance is perfect.
Three, the unfailingly silky timbre of the ensemble (try their other-wordly Soave vento from Cosi, track 12): this is a vocal technique for singing in the microphone rather than projecting like classical singers in a huge auditorium; the purity of the sopranos even in the stratospheric reaches (the andante from Piano Concerto no. 21 is sublime), the timbral softness of the men, but also their timbral character and pungency in the horn concerto, track 10 (sung only by the men): the Swingles are here the heirs of the best of the tradition of English madrigalists.
Four, their sheer virtuosity – both in speeds in the fast and explosive movements, and in individual and ensemble pitch-production. Add to that the mastery of the arrangements and the pyrotechnics of the singers’ exchanges and tossing the phrases among them, enhanced by the great stereo spread of their recordings. This is dazzling. Oh, and I should point out that, unlike the first Swingle band, who was supported by jazz drums and double-bass, here it is all purely vocal. As a note in the booklet puts it: “the Swingle Singers produce all the sounds heard on this recording. No instruments are used.” All the more impressive.
But, above all, there is, I think, the “quasi-scat” technique that they’ve developed from the beginning. Taking up the instrumental lines, they don’t just sing anonymous “Aaaaahs” as in a vocalise: they sing words in an invented language made of onomatopoeia, “ti-da-dum, pa-da-ba-da-bam”, just like you and me when we are singing under our shower. But no, precisely, not just you and me. A review from Steven Schwartz of another Swingle disc, available online on the Bach-cantata website, astutely points out that Swingles onomatopeia aren’t randomly chosen, but serve to lighten and clarify the textures, while retaining a scent of the articulation and phrasing of the original instruments: “Ward Swingle’s arrangements were little miracles of translation, where the new language gave you insights into the old, and they suited the voice besides“. And they lend the music an irresistible and uplifting verve, and in the slow movements a power of fascination, that it doesn’t always have in its original form, at least not to that extent. When I’m hearing their arrangement of slow movement of the 21st Piano Concerto, I’m thinking that it is better than the original (of course when I’ll return to the original, I’ll forget all about that).
Many have considered (and I agree) that music, even when purely instrumental – and especially with Mozart – is in essence vocal music transcribed for other instruments. Mozart’s Piano Concertos have even been described as quasi-operas. A composer sings the notes to himself before he transcribes them onto the paper. Consequently Classical instrumentalists are asked not just to play the notes but to sing them, even when their instrument is in essence a percussion instrument, like the harpsichord or the piano (leading, by reaction, composers like Stravinsky or Bartòk to assert the percussive nature of the instrument). So it is only fitting that the Swingles should reverse the whole process, and return these compositions to their vocal origin and essence. And it is (have I bee using that word too much?) irresistible.