As you read through this post, I’d like to make an observational comment. Many of the higher rated choral groups are supported with professional instrument players and sometimes even full orchestras. There are a number of exceptions that choose to perform in cappella (with no accompaniment). These groups deserve higher ratings as the focus becomes solely on them. I will footnote groups that sing A Cappella.
Here are two playlists for your enjoyment:
Top 25 A Capella groups (26 videos): https://youtube.com/playlist?list=PLqptie5CKN1gGSBoFJbtYZ55LJQT5N7_M
VOCES8 A Capella group (14 videos): https://youtube.com/playlist?list=PLqptie5CKN1j2eqnrV5YXLtJQNiC3LmVc
A Capella music
New Featured A Capella Group: VOCES8
The British vocal ensemble VOCES8 is proud to inspire people through music and share the joy of singing. Touring globally, the group performs an extensive repertoire both in its a cappella concerts and in collaborations with leading orchestras, conductors and soloists. Versatility and a celebration of diverse musical expression are central to the ensemble’s performance and education ethos. VOCES8 has performed at many notable venues in its 15-year career, including Wigmore Hall, Elbphilharmonie Hamburg, Cité de la Musique Paris, Vienna Konzerthaus, Tokyo Opera City, NCPA Beijing, Sydney Opera House, Mariinsky Theatre Concert Hall, Victoria Concert Hall Singapore, Palacio de Bellas Artes Mexico City amongst many others. In the 2020-2021 season they are scheduled to perform concerts in the UK and across Europe, in the USA and Japan. Summer 2020 saw the launch of LIVE From London, the ground-breaking global streaming festival hosted by the VOCES8 Foundation that connects performers with audiences around the world. It was followed by a Christmas festival featuring musicians from around the world, premieres of new music, and a young performer feature. Spring and Summer festivals continue the success of ‘LIVE From London’. This season also sees the launch of the VOCES8 Digital Academy, an online choral programme for high schools and colleges featuring live interaction with members of the ensemble, live and recorded lectures, and video resources to learn and perform music from the renaissance to today.
Some of their recordings: “Send in the Clowns” https://youtu.be/QLw9EN94wDk, “Pie Jusu” https://youtu.be/o9al6HNOgSo, “Hallelujah” https://youtu.be/Qac_VUxlE7o, “The Sound of Silence” https://youtu.be/KXJNLb71VH4, “Shenandoah” https://youtu.be/t8xbY9Iyxpo, “Underneath the Stars” https://youtu.be/DvmU-ppORGM, “Ave Maria” https://youtu.be/ycAtH_b7PnI, “Goodnight My Angel” https://youtu.be/YUumh6vgRhE, “This is My Song” (Finlandia) https://youtu.be/eXooDIWVRZs, “Abendlied” https://youtu.be/sIOagJryMik, “Kylie from Mass in E flat” https://youtu.be/TSStTxoDbko, “Ne Irascaris Domine” https://youtu.be/Wo8qfyK9c3c, “Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich” https://youtu.be/wPdh0loM2yM, “Lux Aeterna” https://youtu.be/IwdeqVmXlHk
(8) Members of VOCES8:
Andrea began her career singing in her small parish church in Kent and as part of the Royal School of Church Music’s youth choirs. She joined VOCES8 fresh from Cardiff University in 2008. As one of the ensemble’s longest serving members, Andrea brings a level of mindfulness to the group environment, and always tries to find time on tour for a spot of yoga, watercolour painting and writing.
Molly began her musical upbringing as a violinist, attending Chetham’s School of Music, where she went on to become a chorister at Manchester Cathedral. She subsequently gained a place at The University of Cambridge to read music, and held a Choral Scholarship at Trinity College. A self confessed choral fanatic, Molly attended classes given by VOCES8 whilst in Cambridge, and was delighted to apply for the job in her final year as an undergraduate. Still more thrilled to be appointed, Molly is now loving life in the group, but is very eager to begin touring and meet VOCES8 audiences in person.
Katie discovered her love of choral music whilst part of the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain. An alumna of Chetham’s School of Music, she went on to study Music at Oxford University. Following university, Katie had the privilege of taking part in both VOCES8 and The Sixteen’s choral training programmes — the VOCES8 Scholars and Genesis Sixteen — coupled with freelance singing and working with amateur choirs, including the award-winning Peterborough Sings! charity. When not singing, Katie can usually be found in the garden, reading about plants or exploring new green spaces — a hobby she takes on the road with her when on tour.
Barnaby Smith is Artistic Director of the internationally renowned vocal ensemble VOCES8, LIVE From London digital festivals, and the UK and US branches of The VOCES8 Foundation charity including its Digital Academy and Milton Abbey Festival. He is in demand as a conductor, choir trainer, teacher, countertenor and arranger. With a schedule that takes him around the world, Barnaby has performed at many of the world’s prestigious festivals and halls including BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, the Barbican Centre, Wigmore Hall, Bridgewater Hall, Sydney Opera House, Muziekgebouw Amsterdam, La Seine Musicale and Cité de la Musique in Paris, Elbphilharmonie Hamburg, BOZAR in Brussels, Tokyo Opera City, NCPA Beijing, Mariinsky Theatre Concert Hall, Victoria Concert Hall in Singapore, Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City and Vienna Konzerthaus. Barnaby has conducted orchestras including the Philharmonia Orchestra, the Academy of Ancient Music, Australian National Academy of Music, English Chamber Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, Monte Carlo Symphony and he directed the music for the Olympic Mascots Film Scores at Abbey Road Studios with the British Film Orchestra. Barnaby’s collaborations have included projects with Rachel Podger, Roderick Williams, Christina Pluhar, Masaki Suzuki, Jacob Collier, Ola Gjeilo, Eric Whitacre, Jonathan Dove and Christopher Tin amongst others. Digital collaborations have included The Sixteen, the English Chamber Orchestra, Gabrieli Consort & Players, The King’s Singers, The Tallis Scholars, the Academy of Ancient Music and Chanticleer. A passionate pedagogue, he has taught at Academies and Universities across the world including co-curating the Masters course in ensemble singing at the University of Cambridge. On disc Barnaby has released albums with record labels including Decca Classics, Universal, Sony, Warner, Naxos, Signum Classics and VOCES8 Records. He has five No.1 albums to his credit and has won numerous awards including Classic FM Album of the Year. Upcoming releases include his first solo album Handel (VOCES8 Records) with guest Mary Bevan and conducting the Philharmonia for the world premiere recording of Mårtin Jansson and Charles Anthony Silvestri’s Requiem Novum. Recent releases with VOCES8 include Infinity (Decca Classics) and After Silence (VOCES8 Records). Barnaby completed his studies in Specialist Early Music Performance at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis where he was a pupil of Andreas Scholl and Ulrich Messthaler. He is an alumnus of the Britten-Pears Young Artists Programme and began his career singing as a treble in The Choir of Westminster Abbey.
Blake is a native of Detroit, Michigan where he studied both Classical and Jazz singing. After a very successful career in American A Cappella, singing with supergroups Chanticleer and Cantus, Blake moved to the UK to take up his position in VOCES8. When he isn’t indulging in madly improvised scat singing and barbershop tags, Blake’s serene and easy high tenor voice floats him into the hearts of the group’s audience. Away from singing he loves to write and record his own music, in which he not only sings but also plays the guitar and drums.
Euan joined VOCES8 after completing music degrees at Newcastle University and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Originally from Edinburgh, his love of choral singing began as part of the National Youth Choir of Scotland, continuing with the award-winning chamber choir Voices of Hope and, during the 2018/19 season, the VOCES8 Scholars. Euan is also an avid football fan, following his adopted hometown club, Newcastle United, from afar whilst on tour.
Chris’ love of singing began as a chorister in his local church choir and at school. He joined VOCES8 soon after graduating from the University of Cambridge, where he read music and sang in Trinity College Choir under Stephen Layton. In addition to singing, he enjoys conducting and composing, and when not on stage with VOCES8 he can probably be found either in the kitchen, up a mountain or looking at trains.
Jonathan started his singing career as a chorister in the choir of Winchester Cathedral, under David Hill and Andrew Lumsden and won a choral scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, under Stephen Layton, where he read Music. He joined VOCES8 in 2015 directly after graduating. In addition to his vocal work, Jonathan is also an experienced music typesetter and editor, specialising in the English renaissance, and has lectured at institutions such as Western Michigan University and Shenandoah University. His editions are published by Edition Peters. Outside of music Jonathan enjoys walking, especially in his beloved Lake District, and is a keen cook.
Top 25 Groups (by Theodorus II of list25.com)
Ever wondered what acapella music is? Or where it got its name from? Or how it started? Well, we got the answers for you. A cappella music is choral singing but performed without instruments. The name derives from “capella,” which in Italian means chapel. See, a few centuries ago, religious music destined for use in chapels was for voices only. Why? Because unlike big churches, chapels didn’t have any musical instruments. That’s how the whole “a cappella” genre was born, even though some historians may disagree and claim that cavemen humming to themselves were singing a cappella too. One way or another, a cappella has come a long way since those days. The 25 Best Acapella Groups that follow, demonstrates best that many musicians from around the world are hitting stardom nowadays, without the use of musical instruments or expensive music videos to accompany their undeniable vocal skills.
No1 – Pentatonix (5 Members)
Since 2011 that the band won the third season of The Sing-Off, things have been wild for Pentatonix. Two #1 albums in the US – an unprecedented feat for an a cappella group – several multi-platinum, platinum and gold albums and singles, three Grammys and numerous other awards, are just a few accomplishments of the band. With their YouTube channel currently having over 17 million subscribers and 4 billion views, Pentatonix can easily claim that they are the most influential a cappella band of all time, popularizing the genre more than any other a cappella artist or group in history. An example of their work: “Hallelujah” (https://youtu.be/LRP8d7hhpoQ).
No2 – Swingle Singers (8 Members)
Originally a French vocal group, founded in 1962 by Ward Swingle, the Swingle Singers specialized in singing classical songs with a capella and jazz arrangement. They were also doing background vocals for singers such as Charles Aznavour and the legendary Edith Piaf. They became very popular in the US and managed to win three Grammy Awards during the 1960s. The group continues to this day with a turnover of new members. More than 50 singers have been a Swingle during the long “life” of the legendary group (nearly fifty years old). An example of their work: “Libertango” (https://youtu.be/-uiG5jJavTU).
No3 – Manhattan Transfer (4 Members)
It’s been forty years since Tim Hauser, a former Madison Avenue marketing executive, formed this harmony vocal quartet. The group’s name comes from John Dos Passos’ 1925 novel “Manhattan Transfer” and refers to the band’s roots. The band has won more Grammy Awards than any other a capella group in history, grabbing ten of them. An example of their work: “Velvet Voices” (https://youtu.be/-KAedDHKGKg).
No4 – The Real Group (5 members)
This awesome Swedish a cappella group was formed in 1984, when its members were still students at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm. Since then, the band has performed more than 2000 concerts worldwide. In 2002, they performed at the opening ceremony of the FIFA World Cup in Seoul, South Korea, to an audience of 60,000. There are not many (if any) other a cappella bands who can claim performing live in front of such a massive audience. An example of their work: “Pass Me The Jazz – Södermalm Sessions” (https://youtu.be/bRqOjKWobSI).
No5 – The Kings Singers (6 Members)
The King’s Singers are a British a cappella vocal ensemble founded in 1968. They are named after King’s College in Cambridge, England. In 2009, the band’s album titled Simple Gifts, won a Grammy Award for Best Classical Crossover Album. Three years later they won another Grammy for Best Choral Performance. The group has always consisted of six singers in total, with their membership changing over the years. None of the original members remain. An example of their work: “Danny Boy” (https://youtu.be/SfGTq71VXfo).
No6 – Take 6 (6 Members)
Take 6 is an American a cappella gospel group formed in 1980 on the campus of Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama. The band’s definitely one of the most decorated a cappella groups in history with an incredible career that includes 8 Grammy Awards and the release of a gold and platinum album in the US. The band has worked with several great musicians such as Ray Charles, Whitney Houston, Quincy Jones and Stevie Wonder just to name a few. An example of their work: “The Most Awarded Group in History” (https://youtu.be/NZepKMnGOX8).
No7 – House Jacks (5 Members)
The House Jacks is a professional a cappella quintet from San Francisco. The group was founded in 1991 by Deke Sharon, the man who’s also known as “the father of contemporary a cappella.” The group mainly performs original material unlike most modern a cappella groups who focus on cover songs. The House Jacks are considered the first professional a cappella group to have a dedicated vocal percussionist and has won a total of 22 Contemporary A Cappella Recording and A Cappella Community Awards. An example of their work: “Cause You Kissed Me” (https://youtu.be/9vt4PIJj0ow).
No8 – The Filharmonic (6 Members)
The Filharmonic is an Los Angeles based a cappella group of Filipino-American singers. In 2016, the band made some noise with their unique blend of hip hop, pop and 90’s nostalgic sound to more than 150 college stages all over America. The band was named the #1 college booked entertainment group of the year. An example of their work: “Bruno Mars Greatest Hits – 24k Magic Medley” (https://youtu.be/vpUPa9h1j2Q).
No9 – Rockapella (5 Members)
Rockapella is an American a cappella musical group formed in 1986 in New York. Thirty-three years and 19 albums later, even though the band has seen many members from the original lineup departing, it still continues to do what knows best: perform a cappella covers of pop and rock songs live on stage. An example of their work: “Pretty Woman” (https://youtu.be/VxtBufHWvB4).
No10 – Straight No Chaser (10 Members)
Straight No Chaser’s members turned a collegiate hobby into a recording career that has taken them around the world on tour. They performed well enough to capture the NCAA A Cappella singing national championship held at Carnegie Hall. Back in November of 2018, the group released an album titled “One Shot,” where they tell us (by singing of course) their story from 1996 that they were formed to 2018. My wife and I enjoyed an inside view of this group as my daughter dated one of the original singers while in college at Indiana University. An example of their work: “Stand by Me” (https://youtu.be/p5XPQwel8uE).
No11 – VoicePlay (5 Members)
With more than one million followers on Facebook, VoicePlay isn’t just one of the best modern a capella groups in the world, but one of the most popular as well. This award winning a cappella quintet based in Orlando, Florida, do something right…obviously. An example of their work: “Can’t Help Falling in Love” (https://youtu.be/786-XvOK8rM).
No12 – Metro Vocal Group (4 Members)
Hailing from the Midwest, the Metro Vocal Group performs a cappella versions of Cantonese and Mandarin pop songs, besides singing in their native English. That alone makes them as unique as it gets. An example of their work: “Drifter’s Song” (https://youtu.be/qfpRMGo2E_k).
No13 – Vocal Point (9 Members)
Vocal Point is a nine-member, male a cappella group at Brigham Young University (BYU). Founded by students in 1991, Vocal Point operates under the direction of BYU’s Performing Arts Management. The group has won three Pearl Awards and it was the winner of the 2006 International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella. An example of their work: “It Is Well with My Soul” (https://youtu.be/FexGqNDBK3g).
No14 – Home Free (5 Members)
Home Free is country music’s most recognized and popular cappella group. Starting as a show group back in 2000, they are performing an average 200 shows a year across the United States. Home Free released their first album under a major label, Crazy Life, in 2014. An example of their work: “Man of Constant Sorrow” (https://youtu.be/-ew_bfFvros).
No15 – The Puppini Sisters (3 Members)
The Puppini Sisters are an English close harmony vocal trio composed of Italian-born singer Marcella Puppini and English singers Kate Mullins and Emma Smith. Heavily inspired by The Andrew Sisters and 40s music, the Puppini Sisters’s debut album became gold in the UK, while band has collaborated more than once with the great Michael Bublé. An example of their work: “Puttin on the Ritz” (https://youtu.be/lcgdnfzLup4).
No16 – Gentleman’s Rule (7 Members)
Gentleman’s Rule is a male a cappella group based in Chicago. The band’s fans call them “the next generation of vocal entertainment.”Founded in 2012, G-Rule stepped on the scene with their viral hit “The Pachanelly Canon” (https://youtu.be/SzbiqPJBATc). Since then, the band has appeared on MTV, Billboard.com, BuzzFeed and The Huffington Post among other outlets. Not bad.
No17 – The Idea of North (4 Members)
This quintet of musicians from Australia was founded in Canberra in 1993. The band includes a tenor, an alto and a soprano. They claim to be “deadly” serious about their music without taking themselves too seriously though. With two ARIA awards, a wide local and international fan base, and 10 studio albums released during the past 25 years, this is probably the most decorated a acapella band in Australia. An example of their work: “Singin’ A Capella” (https://youtu.be/-GJ9INcBkjE).
No18 – The Voca People (8 Members)
The Voca People is an Israeli band performing vocal theater combining a cappella and beat box vocals to reproduce the sounds of an entire orchestra. Their motto is: “Life is music and music is life.” An example of their work: “Bruno Mars Cover” (https://youtu.be/C42TdtfmW_c).
No19 – Acapella (5 Members)
Founded back in the early 1980’s, Acapella is an all-male Contemporary Christian vocal group. It was founded in 1982 by a guy who has been the singer, songwriter, and producer of the group for the past 37 years. One way or another, a group named Acapella just couldn’t miss from a list about a capella groups, right? An example of their work: “Warriors-Imagine Dragons” (https://youtu.be/DNh6_XubM2A).
No20 – Naturally 7 (7 Members)
These seven guys met for the first time at the gospel choir of their school. They quickly discovered that every band member had his own style and favorite songs. So, they decided to create a musical “cocktail.” If you want to combine soul, rap, rock and folk in one harmonious balance, Naturally 7 are your guys. An example of their work: “Fix You” (https://youtu.be/-Mxjmti325o).
No21 – Street Corner Symphony (6 Members)
Street Corner Symphony is an a cappella group from Nashville, Tennessee and a contestant on the second season of NBC’s reality show The Sing-Off. The group has also been featured in many commercial advertisements for the show, which can be seen on YouTube. An example of their work: “Uptown Funk” (https://youtu.be/OPjSpsNpuQ4).
No22 – Vocal Majority (>30 Members)
Vocal Majority is a Dallas-based men’s chorus of 100+ volunteer musicians who have performed throughout the U.S., Canada and the UK. They have won a total thirteen gold medals in BHS chorus competitions, with their most recent win being in 2018. An example of their work: “A Million Dreams” (https://youtu.be/jB_Z2OfyKyg).
No23 – Voice Male (6 Members)
Voice Male is a six-man contemporary a cappella group based in Utah. These guys have been singing together since 1994 and have remained good friends who still get to have fun and be slightly silly on stage. Other than good vocal skills, they also have a very good sense of humor. An example of their work: “Prayer of the Children” (https://youtu.be/jGSKwxnGLW4).
No24 – Face (6 Members)
Face is an American group from Boulder, Colorado. They started doing their thing back in 2002 and seventeen years later they’ve won every a cappela award there is, including “A Cappella Music Awards Quintet of the Year 2019.” An example of their work: “The Parting Glass” (https://youtu.be/2Sql9X4H0VY).
No25 – Witloof Bay (6 Members)
Almost fifteen years ago, six friends who share the same passion for jazz, pop, a cappella and beatbox decided to perform as a group. In 2011, the group represented Belgium in the prestigious Eurovision Song Contest. An example of their work: “With Love Baby” (https://youtu.be/22xexkRESXw).
During the Renaissance, sacred choral music was the principal type of formally notated music in Western Europe. Music for divided choirs, or cori spezzati, was developed in the early 16th century and reached a peak of excellence in the late 16th- and early 17th-century works of Giovanni Gabrieli. Music from this period continues to be popular with many choirs throughout the world today. The madrigal, a partsong conceived for amateurs to sing in a chamber setting, originated at this period. Though Gabrieli composed in many of the forms current at the time, he preferred sacred vocal and instrumental music. All of his secular vocal music is relatively early in his career; he never wrote lighter forms, such as dances; and later he concentrated on sacred vocal and instrumental music that exploited sonority for maximum effect. Among the innovations credited to him – and while he was not always the first to use them, he was the most famous of his period to do so – were dynamics; specifically notated instrumentation, as in the famous Sonata pian’ e forte (https://youtu.be/1ilLF8zbzTI); and massive forces arrayed in multiple, spatially separated groups, an idea which was to be the genesis of the Baroque concertato style, and which spread quickly to northern Europe, both by the report of visitors to Venice and by Gabrieli’s students, which included Hans Leo Hassler and Heinrich Schütz. Like composers before and after him, he would use the unusual layout of the San Marco church, with its two choir lofts facing each other, to create striking spatial effects. Most of his pieces are written so that a choir or instrumental group will first be heard on one side, followed by a response from the musicians on the other side; often there was a third group situated on a stage near the main altar in the center of the church. While this polychoral style had been extant for decades (Adrian Willaert may have made use of it first, at least in Venice), Gabrieli pioneered the use of carefully specified groups of instruments and singers, with precise directions for instrumentation, and in more than two groups. The acoustics were and are such in the church that instruments, correctly positioned, could be heard with perfect clarity at distant points. Thus instrumentation which looks strange on paper, for instance a single string player set against a large group of brass instruments, can be made to sound, in San Marco, in perfect balance. A fine example of these techniques can be seen in the scoring of In Ecclesiis (https://youtu.be/mcfdtdQHvfQ) Gabrieli’s first motets were published alongside his uncle Andrea’s compositions in his 1587 volume of Concerti. These pieces show much influence of his uncle’s style in the use of dialogue and echo effects. There are low and high choirs and the difference between their pitches is marked by the use of instrumental accompaniment. The motets published in Giovanni’s 1597 Sacrae Symphoniae (https://youtu.be/CBobif_00UA) seem to move away from this technique of close antiphony towards a model in which musical material is not simply echoed, but developed by successive choral entries. Some motets, such as Omnes Gentes (https://youtu.be/wLGgLtfzYF0) developed the model almost to its limits. In these motets, instruments are an integral part of the performance, and only the choirs marked “Capella” are to be performed by singers for each part. There seems to be a distinct change in Gabrieli’s style after 1605, the year of publication of Monteverdi’s Quinto libro di madrigali (https://youtu.be/r-JX4Lo-WwA), and Gabrieli’s compositions are in a much more homophonic style as a result. There are sections purely for instruments – called “Sinfonia” – and small sections for soloists singing florid lines, accompanied simply by a basso continuo. “Alleluia” refrains provide refrains within the structure, forming rondo patterns in the motets, with close dialogue between choirs and soloists. In particular, one of his best-known pieces, In Ecclesiis, is a showcase of such poly choral techniques, making use of four separate groups of instrumental and singing performers, underpinned by the omnipresent organ and continuo.
Modern Day Choirs – Worthy of Listening To:
Northwell Health Nurse Choir (18 members, cappella). The Northwell Health Nurse Choir’s journey began in 2020 when a group of motivated philanthropists and celebrities founded Nurse Heroes—a nonprofit initiative to help solve the global nurse shortage by raising awareness and providing much needed funds for nursing scholarships. Nurse Heroes, in collaboration with Grammy Award-winning producer Emilio Estefan and Times Square Media Live, created and produced the inaugural Nurse Heroes Live! celebrity concert with performances by Andrea Bocelli, Céline Dion, Gloria Estefan, Leslie Odom Jr., Stevie Wonder and many others—including the Northwell Health Nurse Choir. Broadcast on Thanksgiving Day 2020, the concert was hosted by Oprah Winfrey and Whoopi Goldberg and has been viewed by over 10 million people to date. Our singing Northwell nurses didn’t know each other before joining their voices to support Nurse Heroes—they came from different hospitals, nursing specialties and areas of New York. That’s when the power of music lifted their spirits and helped them forge a special bond—something they treasure, as the COVID-19 pandemic has been especially challenging for nurses. Northwell is grateful to Nurse Heroes, as well as the philanthropists and celebrities who produced the all-star concert, for providing our nurses with this opportunity. Particular thanks go to philanthropists Sandi and Bill Nicholson, Eliot and Lori Tawil and Times Square Live Media. An example of their work: “Stand by Me” (https://youtu.be/s1w8B1eYRQQ).
Choral Groups – Best in World
Grammophone – January 10, 2010. By Martin Cullingford
Gramophone’s January issue asked an international jury to name the world’s leading choirs, and then invited American composer Eric Whitacre to reflect on why the list is dominated by British ensembles.
At the age of 18, when I first began singing in choirs, I devoured every choral recording I could find. I collected a huge and varied number of choral discs but over time realised that I was partial to those albums performed by British choirs. Three recordings stand out in my memory: Vaughan Williams’s An Oxford Elegy, Stephen Darlington conducting Christ Church Cathedral Choir; Arvo Pärt’s Passio from the Hilliard Ensemble; and “The Treasures of English Church Music”, John Rutter conducting the Cambridge Singers. I loved these recordings and marvelled at such perfect singing.
Then suddenly, five years ago, I received an e‑mail from Stephen Layton, letting me know that he had discovered a few pieces of mine in a music store in Amsterdam and would I be kind enough to send him everything I’d ever written. I did – and one year later he sent me the finished disc “Cloudburst”, performed by his incredible choir Polyphony. Never had I dreamt that my music would one day be so beautifully and masterfully recorded by such a quintessentially British choir.
Since that time I have had the great privilege to work with a number of choirs in the UK, with each experience being a thrill: writing a piece for the The King’s Singers and the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain; recording my album “Light & Gold” with the Eric Whitacre Singers (all Brits) and Laudibus; and, most recently, concerts with the London Symphony Chorus and the Welsh choir Cordydd. After much thought I’m finally beginning to understand what makes these British choirs so incredible.
Tuning: perhaps the most powerful weapon in the technical arsenal of a choir, choristers in the UK are taught from a very early age not only to sing in tune but to listen to those around them. A perfect example is Alamire, David Skinner’s phenomenal early music group to which I have recently been introduced, a choir that sings so in tune that the music seems to shimmer and float in front of the speakers.
Sight-reading: the Brits are possibly the world’s greatest sight-readers. In my travels I’ve certainly never seen anything like it. Every time I rehearse a choir here I am astonished at how quickly they parse the music and absorb it. When we recorded “Light & Gold”, the Eric Whitacre Singers and Laudibus had just six hours to read through and rehearse 80 minutes of my music. Good singers here are simply expected to read.
Tone: bright and clear, with a healthy spin and not too much vibrato. I love the warm, long, open vowels, the purity of the vowel colour being perfect for the close harmonies in my music. I love the way the women can sing in their upper registers, rich and crystalline. And when a British choir truly dedicate themselves to the consonants – like in the line “giving their kisses like clouds exchanging foam”, a line from my a cappella work A Boy and a Girl – there is little that’s more sweet or more affecting.
Knowledge: British choirs simply get it. I’m sure it comes from the centuries-old tradition of singing but there is a seasoned polish and an attitude about the music-making that is at once soulful and unsentimental, expressive without being maudlin. They have the beating hearts of singers and the brains of trained musicians and this places them among the most potent and versatile artists on the planet.
I certainly do not underestimate the influence of such extraordinary choral conductors as John Eliot Gardiner, Stephen Layton and Harry Christophers. What can I say? I am genuinely in awe of the British choral tradition and look forward to each opportunity that I have to listen to and work with the many and varied exceptional choirs.
And the the choirs in ascending order of votes (20-1) are:
20 I Fagiolini (5 members, one string, one piano)
Specialising in Renaissance and contemporary music, I Fagiolini are a British solo-voice ensemble directed by Robert Hollingworth. The group are renowned for their themed performances – “The Full Monteverdi” and “Tallis in Wonderland”, for example – and are also active in commissioning new works. An example of their work: “Claudio Monteverdi songs” (https://youtu.be/Alss4PAU4-I).
19 Arnold Schoenberg Choir (29 members, cappella, two pianos in foreground not used)
Founded in 1972, the Arnold Schoenberg Choir have enjoyed a close association with director Nikolas Harnoncourt for the past 25 years and remain one of the most versatile and sought-after vocal ensembles in Austria. An example of their work: “Friede Auf Erden” (https://youtu.be/WIlYVjV_Crc).
18 Stile Antico (12 members, cappella)
Including three sisters among their ranks, Stile Antico rehearse and perform without a conductor and have experienced exponential success since they won the audience prize at the Early Music Network Young Artists’ Competition in 2005. The group have released five discs with Harmonia Mundi since 2007, including one Gramophone Award winner. An example of their work: “O Magnum Mysterium” (https://youtu.be/vo7_Hn6WoQE).
17 The Balthasar-Neumann Choir (26 members, full orchestra)
Unusually founded before the orchestra of the same name, the Balthasar-Neumann Choir, so-called after the Baroque architect, perform as a free association of singers under creator and director Thomas Hengelbrock. An example of their work: “B Minor Mass-h-Moll-Messe” (https://youtu.be/fmcJQCGACnE).
16 Westminster Abbey Choir (14 members, cappella)
The blend of tradition and versatility of the Westminster Abbey Choir, combined with a unique polish and personality, has resulted in numerous recordings with Hyperion. The choir have continued to flourish under James O’Donnell’s direction during the past decade. An example of their work: “Miserere Mei, Deus” (https://youtu.be/Psf5Cqjpt7I).
15 Les Arts Florissants (12+ actors, full orchestra)
The 30-year-old Les Arts Florissants have, under William Christie’s direction, consistently won critical plaudits, drawing praise for their vivid performances and for giving up-and-coming singers opportunities to flourish and develop. An example of their work: “L’Orfeo – Monteverdi” (https://youtu.be/25ofpbjIFwg).
14 Choir of New College, Oxford (>20 members, cappella)
The sound of the trebles is what many people prize in this very impressive choir – bright, incisive and intense. A daily helping of liturgical music keeps the choir grounded in sacred music, but there’s also a flexibility and elegance there too that brings a wide range of music within the choir’s unique embrace. An example of their work: “Miserere Mei Deu” (https://youtu.be/ZfmTIRN3efs).
13 The Tallis Scholars (9 members, cappella)
Founded by Peter Phillips in 1973, The Tallis Scholars’ sound has become, for many, synonymous with early polyphonic repertoire (music of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries). The Tallis Scholars’ sound is flexible, full but always full of power – and with their own recording label, Gimell, it’s a sound that has reached the four corners of the planet. An example of their work: “Victoria’s First Lamentation for Maundy Thursday” (https://youtu.be/f510B8GFZzI).
12 Choir of King’s College, Cambridge (22 members, cappella)
One of the most famous choirs in the world, with an immediately recognisable sound – thanks in large part to the remarkable acoustic of King’s College Chapel – it remains quintessentially English in timbre. Each new music director has not only put his stamp on the King’s music-making, but has also broadened the Choir’s repertoire. An example of their work: “Miserere mei” (https://youtu.be/IX1zicNRLmY).
11 The Dunedin Consort (10 members, full orchestra)
One of the youngest choral contenders, the Scottish Dunedin Consort was founded in 1996 and have, since 2000, been conducted in the larger choral repertoire by John Butt – an association that has produced a string of impressive recordings for Linn Records (including the Gramophone Award-winning set of Handel’s Messiah). An example of their work: “Bach’s Magnificat” (https://youtu.be/QA7pe_j0P7c).
10 Swedish Radio Choir (24 members, cappella)
One of mainland Europe’s great vocal ensembles, the Swedish Radio Choir is the one that Claudio Abbado would regularly call on when he performed choral music: and their EMI recording of the Verdi Requiem, made in 2001, is a tribute to their power and personality, one that always stays intensely human. An example of their work: “Ich bin der welt abhanden gekommen” (https://youtu.be/iuXQjx3lnGU).
9 RIAS Kammerchor (25 members, two stringed instruments)
Well known internationally through their very fine recordings for Harmonia Mundi (mainly under Marcus Creed and his successor Daniel Reuss), the RIAS Kammerchor have a remarkably homogenous sound and terrific power. They sing a wide repertoire and bring a great sense of bite and concentration of sound that makes a deep impression in music as different as Mozart’s Idomeneo and Frank Martin’s Golgotha. An example of their work: “Lobet den Herrn” (https://youtu.be/InrxMA1ID0I).
8 Accentus (20 members, full orchestra)
Founded in 1991 by the conductor Laurence Equilbey, Accentus are a virtuoso chamber choir with a huge following thanks to their superb series of recordings of transcriptions for Naïve. Accentus’s repertoire stretches from the romantic masters of the 19th century to music of the 20th century. An example of their work: “Requiem de Fauré” (https://youtu.be/PnQl18sVyig).
7 Collegium Vocale Ghent (9 members, cappella)
Founded 40 years ago by Philippe Herreweghe as a 16-voice chamber choir, Collegium Vocale have various different “guises” for different repertoires, though a composer central to the choir’s work remains JS Bach. An example of their work: “Coventry Carol” (https://youtu.be/Y-x-zS9ex58).
6 Wells Cathedral Choir (18 children, cappella)
One of the oldest choirs in the UK, Wells Cathedral Choir are made up of lay clerks who live in the famous 14th-century Vicars Close and sing in a choral tradition that has remained unbroken for around 800 years (though now they have girls singing alongside the trebles). An example of their work: “Oh Lord Support Us” (https://youtu.be/C6snzF-i5Sw).
5 Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge (26 members, best soloist, cappella)
It’s only a few years since Stephen Layton – who appears further up the list with Polyphony – took over as director of music at Trinity College. In that time, numerous recordings, not least that of music by David Briggs, have revealed what an accomplished, committed choir they are. An example of their work: “Only in Sleep” (https://youtu.be/fvPynMI6Umc).
4 The Sixteen (14 members, cappella)
Under the expert command of founder Harry Christophers, The Sixteen have combined musical excellence with bold, well-thought-out programmes, to become one of today’s greatest of all choral ambassadors. An example of their work: “Allegri’s Miserere” (https://youtu.be/hAwzChKpDi0).
3 The Cardinall’s Musick (10 members, cappella)
This year’s Gramophone Recording of the Year winners – for the final disc in their exploration of the music of William Byrd – thrive on a musical approach making the most of the virtuosity of their individual voices. An example of their work: “Te Deum” (https://youtu.be/8bMiYnzkZx4).
2 Polyphony (30 members, piano and five strings, pop style)
Stephen Layton’s choir have become renowned for both their sound and versatility – whether in early music, or contemporary works such as those of Eric Whitacre, they embody the remarkable tradition of British choral excellence at its finest. An example of their work: “Just Like in Heaven – The Cure” (https://youtu.be/DqNrZeJ6TQ0).
1 The Monteverdi Choir (26 members, full orchestra)
For 40 years, Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s Monteverdi Choir have been the voices behind some of the most powerful and perceptive Baroque recordings in the catalogue, not least the hugely ambitious Bach Cantata Pilgrimage of the year 2000, but the choir’s range is also a strength (this past year has found them singing Bizet’s Carmen, Brahms’s A German Requiem and the Monteverdi Vespers among much else, and Weber’s Der Freischütz looms large on the horizon). An example of their work: 1610: “Vesperae Virginis” (https://youtu.be/ZVhsw-BIZOI).
Martin Cullingford – Overlooked these (5) choirs in their top 20:
The Tabernacle Choir (360 members, full orchestra). Choirs come in all shapes and sizes, and at around 360-strong The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square is one of the largest. It is also one of the most famous. Formerly known as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, it was founded in Salt Lake City in 1847 and has become a cornerstone of US choral tradition, performing at several U.S. presidential inaugurations. An example of their work: “Amazing Grace” (https://youtu.be/C2arm5ydeJc).
Escolania de Montserrat, Barcelona, Spain (30+ boys members, one lead female singer, cappella) , is an all-boys choir which traces its roots to the 1200s and sings for services at the Abbey of Montserrat. An example of their work: “Jo em rebel·lo” (https://youtu.be/up06KSoQgoM).
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir (46 boys, cappella) founded in 1981 has a tradition of fine choral music and a repertoire of Estonian composers. An example of their work: “Salve Regina” (https://youtu.be/lPGgDfO6yXo).
Mississippi Mass Choir (>75 members, one lead male pastor, cappella), one of the two American choirs on the list, is known for its preeminent gospel music, has won countless awards, and has toured widely. An example of their work: “Old Time Church” (https://youtu.be/MRTggpaBR6o).
St Paul’s Cathedral Choir, England (>20 members, cappella) sprang from a ramshackle outfit in the 1870s to one of England’s preeminent choirs performing at the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana in 1981. An example of their work: “The Lord Bless You and Keep You” (https://youtu.be/bvyCQTDxpBc).