Christopher Gibbons (1615-76) – the making of a world-premiere recording – day 1

This week we unveil the world-premiere recording of music by the seventeenth-century English composer Christopher Gibbons.

You can buy the CD for just £10 plus p&p, listen to samples, read press reviews and find out more at

Here, we revisit a blog written by Julian Forbes, a tenor in the Choir of the AAM (which makes its recording debut on this disc), written during the recording sessions.

Day 1 (Wednesday 10 November 2010)

Samuel Pepys was a crude sort of chap. If you read unexpurgated editions of his diaries you’ll find all sorts of filth. There’s one sequence, covering several days, in which he reports initial indignation at discovering that his bookseller has chosen to stock a pornographic novel, subsequent fascination as he makes several special trips to read it in-store and eventual capitulation as he shamelessly buys it. There’s another memorable entry in which he describes his wife’s dismay upon surprising him in his parlour in the act of doing something decidedly Channel Five to the maid. But from manure pretty flowers grow, and it’s mucky Pepys you’ve got to thank for the AAM’s latest project, a CD of music by the English composer Christopher Gibbons (1615-76).

Passing references to this composer, mentioned only by surname, drew Richard Egarr’s interest some years ago as he was reading the diaries – he assures me not for the naughty bits – since the figure in question clearly couldn’t be Gibbons, O., who collapsed of a seizure in 1625. He decided to find out more about this unfamiliar iteration, and eventually, with the aid of an academic thesis written by a musicologist based in Palo Alto, California, succeeded in assembling a programme of his music comprising verse anthems, instrumental fantasias and organ voluntaries. Now, several years later, a generous donation from one of our patrons has enabled us to record this programme with our label harmonia mundi USA.

All this American aid! The politicians may argue about the ongoing value of the Special Relationship to defence, trade and diplomacy but mark my words, for the preservation in the public awareness of the English Restoration Verse Anthem, it’s critical. God bless the land of the free for vouchsafing our Gibbons.

Samuel Pepys

So here we all are at the church of All Hallows, Gospel Oak, a recording venue much-prized by ensembles and recording engineers for its relatively quiet environment and flattering acoustic, together with Robina Young (producer) and Brad Michel (sound engineer) from harmonia mundi. Our task today is to rehearse the choral sections of the programme, namely two verse anthems, Above the Stars my Saviour dwells and The Lord said unto my Lord (in which the chorus actually only makes a cameo appearances between solo sections sung by solo sopranos and bass) and one full choir anthem, Not unto us, O Lord.

Richard being Richard, the rehearsal is not just a venue in which to get the notes right, but a place in which we can really get to grips with things like text, rhythm, texture and, oh yes, tonality. Our cruising altitude on this project is higher than it was for Family Bach back in September [performances of music by JS Bach’s forebears in September 2010); we’re singing and playing at the equivalent of modern concert pitch (A=440Hz), but, just as with the French Stinky Pitch [Richard Egarr’s nickname for the temperament used on this recording] adopted for our Bach concerts, so here too we have oddities of temperament to negotiate. That means, once again, wide fourths and narrow fifths – and certain notes sitting lower (B natural) or higher (C natural) than you might instinctively place them.

Richard spends a good deal of time insisting on those subtleties this morning, frequently “freezing” the music at a certain chord in order to make us really listen to how our constituent contributions are sounding. This process can get mighty frustrating since no musician likes stop-starting, and the occasional rebellious mutter can be heard as this or that note is encouraged upwards or downwards for the umpteenth time. But there’s no denying the chords’ enhanced glow when properly calibrated, and in this music, in which the harmonic shifts can be startlingly abrupt and unprepared, it’s all the more important that we articulate them cleanly.

Moreover, this obsessive ethos is what makes the recording studio special. Live performance is all about spontaneity, finding the moment, surfing the wave, present-participling the noun. And, yes, there’s a big market for recordings which allegedly capture that spontaneity. We’re by no means aiming for renditions which sound machined or robotic, but the safety net provided by the recording engineer’s ability to cut and patch enables us to assemble accounts of this music which are as close to perfection as we can collectively get them. Perfection is, after all, what musicians are always after. And I’d argue that the presence of this safety net in fact allows us all to be more spontaneous. We can give anything a try, take any risk we like: if it doesn’t work, the audience’ll never hear it…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s