Originally formed in 1977 by students at Cambridge University, Cantabile performed at various functions as a kind of latter-day barbershop quartet. As they gained in musical skills, they gradually expanded their repertoire. The first group comprised high tenor Nick Ibbotson, counter-tenor Stevie Dunstan, tenor Colin Stewart and baritone Michael Stevens. Dunstan dropped out and was replaced by Robert Bryan, the musical director who had prompted the formation of the group. Upon applying to join Equity, three of the four were obliged to change their names: Stevens became Steffan, Colin Stewart became Stewart Collins, and Robert Bryan became Richard Bryan.
By the late 80s the quartet had greatly expanded their repertoire. They first attracted wide attention when they appeared as narrators of Tim Rice’s musical Blondel (1984). They have toured internationally, appearing on stage and television. Their range is very broad and they have appeared successfully at classical and jazz venues. Although much of their stage work is presented in a self-deprecating manner and with great good humour, the group also takes its music seriously. Even when performing tongue-in-cheek, they never lower their musical standards. Additionally, they readily champion the work of contemporary classical composers, for example ‘Ricercare No. 4’ by Stephen Oliver (Rice’s collaborator on Blondel), and Werner Heymann; conversely, they were also involved in the British première of Mischa Spoliansky’s cabaret opera, Send For Mr Plim, originally staged in 1932.
Among many singers who have sung in the group over the years, sometimes briefly (if the founders were involved in educational or other musical matters), other times for extended engagements, have been Chris Henderson, John Allison, Simon Halsey, Mark Padmore, Andrew O’Neill, Patrick Clancy, David Alder, Paul Hull, William Purefoy, Morgan Crowley, Steve Trowell, Jeremy Budd, Andrew Gant, Ben Cooper and Robin Green. Although they remain primarily an a cappella group, Cantabile also sometimes appears with piano accompaniment, Paul Plummer being a long-serving associate. In the early 00s, their touring schedule included a visit to the French-speaking province of Quebec in Canada, where the group proved themselves to be fluent linguists as they did on several highly successful tours of Germany.