Blog: Recording in Wiltshire

In our second blog post Sophie writes about our recent recording sessions for the winning pieces of the New Cobbett Prize.

We’re super excited to have recently finished recording our third album with Adam Binks at Resonus Classics, and can’t wait to hear it! It’s a really interesting mix of music, all connected with the Cobbett Prize and our New Cobbett Prize composition competition (try saying that after a pint or two…) The repertoire includes William Hurlstone’s Phantasy Quartet (the first winner of the original Cobbett Prize in 1905) together with pieces by the winner and runners-up of our New Cobbett Prize – Samuel Wesley Lewis, Barnaby Martin and Laurence Osborn. Cobbett was inspired by the English viol fantasias of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and our album is completed with A Purcell Garland, arrangements of Purcell’s fantasias by contemporary composers Oliver Knussen, George Benjamin and Colin Matthews.

We performed all of these pieces during our last season of concerts at The Forge and it’s great to have had the chance to record them all with the generous support of the PRS Foundation. We decided to record at Wiltshire Music Centre in Bradford-upon-Avon, a hall much admired for its acoustics, and a lovely quiet place to spend a bit of time away from London. We had the challenge of recording the entire album in just three days, but in true Berkeley style, we had quite a few laughs along the way.


Day 1 – Wednesday 19th August

After a long day of rehearsals and then a lengthy drive to Wiltshire last night, I was really relieved to have a morning off, a chance to have a leisurely breakfast and a good warm-up at the Music Centre. We were really fortunate to be recording there in the school holidays, as the building was pretty much empty and we could each have our own practice room – such a luxury! Gemma and Lachie were first up in the morning, recording Laurence Osborn’s Living Floors for cello and double bass, a fascinating piece that plays on the natural resonance of the instruments. Sadly we had a few teething problems on the first morning as there was some unexpected building work going on at the school next door. Drilling right outside is definitely not what you want when you’re trying to record, but with the help of the lovely staff at Wiltshire Music Centre we were eventually able to work around it.

As heavy rain set in during the afternoon another problem emerged. An unexpected leak in the roof again made recording difficult, but the centre staff came to the rescue again with an ingenious solution.

rain saver

After lunch it was on to recording Sequenza by Samuel Wesley Lewis, the overall winner of the New Cobbett Prize and a complex work with lots of tricky (and fast!) writing for string quintet. It’s a brilliantly energetic piece though – and well worth a listen.


Day 2 – Thursday 20th August

Today was an early start for the strings, beginning with a 9am recording session of the Hurlstone Phantasy Quartet. This was the first ever winner of the original Cobbett Prize in 1905 and is a single movement work, full of attractive melodies and such fun to play. We began with a play-through of the whole piece, then went into the sound booth to have a listen to the balance. We decided it all felt a little top-heavy so Adam did some tweaking and we were all set to record. It’s amazing what you notice when you’re recording and it can be easy to get overly critical of yourself. However, Adam has a great way of getting the best out of us and we’ll hopefully be really proud of the result.

It was great to meet Chris Kaday, one of the Berkeley Ensemble Friends, who took advantage of his ‘Gold’ membership to pop into the sessions mid-morning. It was so helpful to be reminded of the network of supporters we have, and his enthusiasm couldn’t fail to inspire us all. The afternoon was taken up with Lazarus by Barnaby Martin, which I wasn’t playing in. I took the rare opportunity to have a listen in the sound booth with Adam. It’s not often I get chance to listen to the ensemble from the outside. Of course I’m biased, but it sounded wonderful! We headed to a local pub for our evening meal – the Dandy Lion (see what they did there?)


Day 3 – Friday 21st August

We had a free morning today and a few of us went to another animal-themed local eatery, The Grumpy Badger, for a delicious breakfast. We then all headed to the venue to do a spot of individual practice.
We spent the afternoon and early evening recording A Purcell Garland, written for the interesting combination of piano/celeste, violin, cello and clarinet. Dan joined us on viola to play the one note in Knussen’s …upon one note, an arrangement of Purcell’s famous fantasia where one part plays only one pitch for the entire piece. The Garland consists of three separate fantasias, arranged by Oliver Knussen, Colin Matthews and George Benjamin. They are wonderful pieces, all very different and imaginatively scored, and have never been recorded before as a set. The Benjamin piece in particular presents a real challenge to the performers, with a tricky section in double-stopped harmonics for the strings and large stretches between notes for the celeste player. Fortunately our bassoonist Andrew was on hand (har har) to fill in a few notes on the celeste that were just out of reach. It was fantastic that pianist Libby Burgess was able to join us for the recording project, playing in the Garland and Lazarus. Thanks so much for being part of it all, Libby!

George Benjamin asks that a five-and-half octave celeste is used for his arrangement, which, as it turns out, can be almost impossible get hold of, especially in Wiltshire, on a Sunday. Once again though, John – our clarinettist and general manager extraordinaire – came to the rescue and managed to get one on day loan from the Royal Opera House, with a large bit of help from the wonderful Barnaby Adams. Thanks so much to Barnaby for ferrying the celeste all the way to and from Wiltshire in a day (and also for the timely delivery of pies and beer just as we’d finished recording).

pie and mash after

We had such a brilliant time recording in Wiltshire and are really looking forward to hearing the results. We’re already well underway with repertoire ideas for our next recording, but for now look out for updates on Twitter, Facebook and our website for details of the release date of our third album, Cobbett’s Legacy.