September 16, 2021


The Queen’s Six Murder the Songs of Tom Lehrer. The Queen’s Six. Signum Classics. $17.99.

     One of the very few highlights of the utterly miserable pandemic year of 2020 was the announcement in October that Tom Lehrer was releasing all his songs and music into the public domain, for anyone to use in any desired way. Technically, he could not do this – one cannot place one’s creative products in the public domain – but he announced that his works should be treated as if in the public domain, which amounts to the same thing. By doing this, Lehrer single-handedly (all right, two-handedly, since he used both hands to play piano) made it possible to uplift the dark and dismal spirits of anyone who may have wondered how this Harvard-educated academician, creator of a mere three dozen or so songs, had enthralled (if not exactly enchanted) some four generations of satire-and-sarcasm-prone listeners for no fewer than 70 years (Lehrer was born in 1928).

     Now we have the answer to Lehrer’s astonishing longevity as a social critic, and that answer is: we have no idea how he did it.

     This is not in any way to minimize The Queen’s Six, as fine an a cappella (well, mostly a cappella) singing group as is to be found anywhere. This melding of two countertenors, two tenors and two bass-baritones really does sing for the Queen and other British royalty, and is expert in forms ranging from the polyphonic to the madrigalic to the folk and popular – with a healthy helping of church music, with which the singers engage more regularly than any other type.

     The sheer incongruity of The Queen’s Six performing Lehrer ought to make this new Signum Classics release a perfectly marvelous one. Instead, though, it simply shows that when it comes to Tom Lehrer’s music, only Tom Lehrer can really do it justice (or injustice, as the case may be). And that is despite the fact that Lehrer long since lost interest in creating or performing music, which is why he has not done so for decades.

     It is almost impossible not to have the highest hopes for this recording, and almost impossible not to be disappointed by it. The singers (Tom Lilburn, Dan Brittain, Nicholas Madden, Dominic Bland, Andrew Thompson, Simon Whiteley) are marvelous, their ensemble picture-perfect (perhaps that should be “sound-perfect”), their individual voices outstanding , their musicianship undoubted. The arrangements of a dozen Lehrer songs – originally for solo voice and piano – are well-done, although occasionally overdone. And the mostly straightforward way the ensemble delivers Lehrer’s decidedly oddball messages and near-rhymes is admirable (from The Masochism Tango: “Your heart’s hard as stone or mahogany,/ That’s why I’m in such exquisite agony”).

     But it is all too smooth, too knowing, too elegant, and from time to time too British: it is fine to hear “iodine” pronounced “eye-o-deen” in The Elements, rather than Lehrer’s “eye-o-dine,” but not fine to change the lines “Your lips were like wine (if you'll pardon the simile);/ The music was lovely and quite Rudolf Friml-y” (in The Wiener Schnitzel Waltz) to “Your face was aglow, but your teeth rather yellowish;/ The music was lovely, quite Ivor Novello-ish.” Nor are the occasional uses of instruments necessarily beneficial: the church bells for The Vatican Rag are at best ineffective, although the accordion in Poisoning Pigeons in the Park works well.

     Lehrer did not so much break the bounds of good taste as tickle them: he was puckish, never mean. I Got It from Agnes is a song about venereal disease, and everyone hearing it should know that, even though he never says so; and the slight smarminess of the casual handling of the serious topic is a Lehrer trademark (he does the same thing when singing about Christmas, in a song not offered here, and in ones that are presented on the CD, such as the nuclear-war-themed We Will All Go Together When We Go). The members of The Queen’s Six never quite manage to figure out how to straddle the line between the meaningful and the tasteless. The underlying wink-and-smirk of Oedipus Rex is wholly missing (Lehrer’s delivery of the line “he loved his mother” was perfect). And the singers seem to miss the entire point of My Home Town, that parade of violent, over-the-top grotesqueries in which the only thing Lehrer holds back is a comment on “kindly Parson Brown” – Lehrer says “I guess I'd better leave this line out just to be on the safe side” or “we’re recording tonight, so I have to leave this line out,” but the members of The Queen’s Six just whistle a little.

     Most of what is here almost works, but not quite – Pollution, which has obvious contemporary relevance that the singers overemphasize; She’s My Girl, where the ensemble members wholly miss Lehrer about to say his girl’s coffee tastes like champagne, turning it at the last instant into “shampoo”; and Alma, to which the group adds a wholly unhelpful and unneeded prologue, sung to the tune of Frère Jacques.

     The members of The Queen’s Six probably had fun making this recording – why would they present these songs if they did not enjoy them? But little of the fun comes through, and even less of the unique blend of high intellect and kindergarten-level outrageousness that Lehrer himself brought to his performances of these songs. This is a short CD – only 35 minutes – but it seems longer, if not quite tiresome. While the disc might be expected to whet an audience’s appetite for further Lehrer from this excellent singing group, all it does is make any listener who has heard Lehrer perform his own material wish again to hear him “murder” his music instead of sitting through others’ efforts to do so on his behalf.

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