With three days of 2019 still to go it turned out there was no better way to end any year. There remains a little confusion as to Cantabile’s real name – they are billed as Cantabile on the flyers and three-sheets outside The Pheasantry but were introduced as The London Quartet.
Whoever they are, they are well worth hearing. For the record they answer to Michael Steffan, baritone, who co-founded Cantabile back in 1982, William Purefoy, counter-tenor, plus two full tenors in the shape of Mark Fleming and Christopher O’Gormon, plus Mike Hatt who weighs in with solid piano accompaniment as and when required. They kicked things off with A Song For Christmas which was just about perfect.
No-one works in a vacuum and the group are very much aware of this and happy to nod to illustrious predecessors like The Four Freshman, Singers Unlimited, The Hi-Los and – perhaps surprisingly – a group that was extremely popular in Germany in the 30s, The Comedian Harmonists, from whom they “borrow” a slightly Teutonic arrangement of Irving Berlin’s Let’s Face The Music And Dance.
Irrespective of how well they sing four guys are going to be hard put to beguile a couple of hours relying on excellent vocal rendition alone. Luckily they have other strings to their collective bow not least the kind of inventiveness that allows them to offer snatches of no less than 27 Christmas carols all in perfect pitch and all identifiable even from just a line. Country music, God knows, is easy enough to parody – indeed the bulk of it seems entirely parody – but Cantabile found something new to satirise and had the audience in stitches.
In between they offered straight readings of favourites like Winter Wonderland and one that was particularly apposite, Frank Loesser’s lovely ballad What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve? They wrapped up the first set in style on an inventive high, imagining that whilst clearing out an attic they stumbled across an ancient gramophone – the sort that requires winding in order to play. They coupled it with a 78 rpm recording of Strangers In The Night, a hit for Frank Sinatra back in the day. They attempt to play it and all goes well for 24 bars but then scratches, surface noise, hiss, etc, come into play, all provided by the four singers in a tour de force.
The second set featured two more nods to the Comedian Harmonists, this time performed in German, and Bobby Troup’s Route 66 with additional lyrics about the A6 which didn’t quite come off. They did score heavily though with a reading of Duke Ellington’s Creole Love Call in which each man imitated a different instrument. They came down to earth with a “normal” reading of Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow, followed by an ambitiously inventive reading of Dixie, whilst a completely a capella take on The Twelve Days Of Christmas provided a perfect finale.
Cantabile, The Pheasantry, King’s Road, Chelsea, London SW3 4UT. 27 December 2019.