Christopher Gibbons (1615-76) – the making of a world-premiere recording – day 2

The second installment of our behind-the-scenes blog from the recording sessions for our new release, written by Julian Forbes, tenor in the Choir of the AAM.

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Day 2 (Thursday 11 November 2010)

There are two three-hour sessions scheduled this afternoon in which we must record around fifteen minutes worth of music. The pressure is intense. Richard has to take aspirin and a banana, Ed Hastings needs to be restrained and Charmian Bedford temporarily forgets her postcode. Finally, after a group yogalates session led by James Geer and readings from The Ladybird Book of Great Speeches by Sean Kerr, we’re ready to go.

We sing in a standard two-row choir formation, ranged on the altar steps. harmonia mundi’s four microphones are positioned in a square in front of us, surrounding Richard, and elevated on booms to a height of about twelve feet. Having done a preliminary rehearsal to refresh the music in our minds and voices, the mikes are switched on and we do a complete run of the piece. It’s unlikely that this take will be used, but it’s good for all of us, performers and engineers, to establish a sense of the whole piece as it sounds in this building. Then we proceed by sections. In the verse anthems, these are easy to isolate; in the full anthem, there’s no option but to cut in at a certain point and it’ll be up to Brad to do the grafting and overlapping afterwards. We try to record each section without stopping (If you think that this is a given, think again: there are some conductors out there who throw themselves entirely on the artistry of their sound engineer, recording in six-bar bleeding chunks – the first time that the performers ever experience the piece as a whole is when they listen to the CD a year later).

The quality control is provided in the first instance by Richard but Robina also has copies of the music at her desk in the recording booth in the crypt, and very occasionally chips in to alert us to an infelicity or inconsistency. “How many beats are you holding that last chord for?”, she enquires at one stage. Richard does his Shogun-sucking-a-lemon face. “BEATS?” he retorts, “How many beats? How big is an elephant? I don’t do beats!”

As we move into the early evening and darkness settles, the industrial bar heaters installed around our recording space become the dominant light source, bathing Richard in a diablolick glow and inspiring your correspondent to mentally riff on puns like Beelzegarr and Devilled Eggar. Perhaps affrighted by this awesome spectacle before us, we work at a cracking pace and have finished recording the lot by the end of the first session at 5.30pm.

A frequent pleasure of discovering a new composer and their music is the obligation to reassess your opinions. Until these recording sessions I believed that English music quietly pensioned itself off round about the end of the reign of Elizabeth I, cringed downstairs for the first two-thirds of the seventeenth century whilst the country merrily cavaliered and roundheaded, and only returned to health and invention with the restoration of the monarchy in the 1660s. But on the evidence of the three pieces we’ve recorded today, Gibbons junior was a highly talented composer whose horizons were in no way shortened by his country’s self-involved predicament.

Take the opening of Not unto us, O Lord. The eight-part texture (itself a statement of confidence and ambition) grows gradually from the second bass upwards, each part rubbing up discordantly against the next and the entries following each other at ever-shorter intervals – you’d say he’d taken the technique from Antonio Lotti, except Lotti wasn’t born until 1667. In the verse anthem setting of Psalm 110, The Lord said unto my Lord, meanwhile, the choir sings great homophonic blocks of text in an aggressive, percussive style that can’t but make you think of the equivalent sections of Monteverdi’s Vespers.

More generally, there are strong affinities with the work of German composer Heinrich Schütz, who was thirty years Gibbons’ senior but died only four years before. Schütz more or less single-handedly created a form called the Kleines Geistliches Konzert, or Little Spiritual Concerto. On the evidence of this music, I’d contend that Christopher Gibbons had some knowledge or experience of the German’s work. Schützophrenia abounds in the contour of the melodies, the combinations of the voices in ensemble (listen out for some exciting formation switches in which the alto and top soprano suddenly swap parts!) – in everything, in fact, which meets the shifting substance of the language. Most Schützophrenic of all (though also redolent of Byrd) is the way in which the music is frequently capable of achieving thrills and grandeurs apparently out of all proportion to its size. This really is music worth listening to again and again.

Christopher Gibbons - Motets, anthems, fantasias and voluntaries

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