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Recording Lennox Berkeley’s Stabat Mater

Berkeley Ensemble violinist Fran’s account of making a world premier recording for Delphian and a three- concert tour of Lennox Berkeley’s Stabat Mater and his son Micheal Berkeley’s Touch Light with the Marian Consort and David Wordsworth (photos by Fran Barritt).

Memories of Snape Maltings

My first experience of Snape Maltings in Suffolk was on the occasion of playing a concert there as a teenager in the National Youth Orchestra. I remember being instantly spellbound by this peaceful place in the marshes. You can imagine my delight in learning that I would be spending several days there with the Berkeley Ensemble to record Lennox Berkeley’s Stabat Mater with the Marian Consort. It was hard to imagine a more perfect place to undertake this task.

The project had been a very long time in the making. Its conception occurred years ago when Lennox was nearing the end of his life. The conductor and a major mastermind for this project, David Wordsworth, explained to me that he had promised Lennox, a close friend, that he would do whatever he could to record the composer’s Stabat Mater. Putting together a project like this never happens overnight. Oh no! There are logistics, of course, and one needs serious funds to make it happen but we were in luck there; the project was offered generous financial support by the Lennox Berkeley Society, without whom this would all have been impossible. Thank you LBS!

Marshes 1

View of the marshes from a rehearsal room at Snape Maltings, Suffolk

Wednesday 23rd of March 2016: London – Rehearsals and first impressions

We met in south London for our first rehearsal. There was a palpable sense of excitement about the week ahead. We started with Michael Berkeley’s intimate chamber work Touch Light, scored for string quintet, soprano and countertenor. From the first reading we were taken with this beautiful music. I absolutely love Michael’s use of dissonance in this piece and I think that the combination of the high register male and female vocals is utterly haunting.

Later on we welcomed guest instrumentalists Joely Cragg (percussion), Fontane Liang (harp) Lindsey Ellis (flute), Emily Cockbill (oboe) and made a start on the instrumental accompaniment for the Stabat Mater. It did sound quite strange without the vocal parts. David assured us that we would be much more convinced the next day when the Marian Consort would join us!

The Berkeley Ensemble and guests then spent a couple of productive hours working on Britten’s Sinfonietta. We were preparing this for the concert at Blythburgh Church a few days later, where we would perform the Britten alongside the Lennox and Micheal Berkeley works. The Sinfonietta is a favourite of the Berkeley Ensemble and one that we have performed many times but which always demands serious rehearsal (particularly because we perform it without a conductor). After an intense day of work everyone headed off home for a good sleep and to get ready to set off for Suffolk the next morning.

Thursday 24th March 2016: To Aldeburgh and rehearsals and …food puns

We all made it to Aldeburgh in various car-shares or by train to Saxmundham station. Thanks to Sophie Mather for her excellent driving and boot packing skills. I contributed snacks and car journey games (a particular favourite with my compatriots was ‘The Camping Game’. Email me if you’d like to know the rules…) Rehearsals were due to start in the Britten Studio at Snape Maltings at 2pm. First, we managed to grab a quick lunch at the Maltings’ own tea room The Granary. The food there is excellent. However, while perusing the menu it occurred to us that they were missing a marketing trick: why not name all items on the menu after the oeuvre of Benjamin Britten, the founder of Snape Maltings? More later…..

It was the first time I had been in the Britten Studio. I think it is a fantastic space. I love the way the old Maltings brickwork and industrial features are incorporated into the contemporary architecture. Very importantly, the studio has an excellent acoustic. Rehearsals went well and the Stabat Mater was really starting to take shape now that we were joined by the superb singers of the Marian Consort. Unfortunately, I was somewhat distracted by thoughts of Britten food puns. I knew I wasn’t the only one when I received the following text message (mid rehearsal!) from a certain french horn player (Paul Cott of the Berkeley Ensemble) “Our Hunting Fajitas, On this Thousand Island, A Midsummer Night’s Cream Bun, Lettuce Make an Opera”. It was a bit hard to concentrate. Very childish.

After the rehearsal we headed to Aldeburgh to check in to our accommodation. The Britten-Pears Foundation have their own place for visiting artists called Elizabeth Court, which offers numerous comfortable rooms, each of which is named after one of Britten’s operatic characters. Having settled in we trotted happily a round the corner to Ye Olde Cross Keys pub. Its a very cosy place to have a beer and they have their own pub dog called Dave. All boxes ticked.

Friday 25th March 2016: Blythburgh Concert

I woke up early to the sound of the sea gulls and took a walk along the shore; it was an inspiring way to start the day.

Beach 2

Aldeburgh Beach, Suffolk

We met at Blythburgh church at 2pm to start rehearsing for the evening concert. Located about 25 miles north up the coast from Aldeburgh, Blythburgh itself is a tiny settlement with a population of fewer than 300 people. The church is disproportionately large, earning it the nickname ‘the Cathedral of the Marches’. A church has been standing on the same piece of land in Blythburgh since the fifth century and the building that stands there today dates from the fourteenth century.

The concert was hugely enjoyed by all involved. We were thrilled to see the church totally packed. I felt that there was a real buzz about the event. It was also a fantastic opportunity for all the musicians to ‘road test’ the Stabat Mater and Touch Light ahead of the recording. I felt that we were ready for the cruel ears of the microphones the next day! The Britten Sinfonietta went swimmingly too. Our reward for a great concert was a delicious dinner at the Plough and Sail pub at Snape Maltings.

Saturday 26th March 2016: Snape Maltings, Britten Studio

Recording sessions: Lennox Berkeley’s Stabat Mater

Recording can be an intense and exhausting process. The pressure of time is ever present and the looming microphone seems to make everything much more difficult! We were lucky to have the calming voice of Paul Baxter of Delphian Records (our producer for this record) coming through the speakers from the booth to keep us on track and keep up the moral.

We managed to get the whole piece recorded in good time and felt really positive about our efforts. Everyone was on top form and in good spirits after such a great concert the night before, which really helped. What also helped was the amazing food market going on at Snape Maltings. I enjoyed pottering around in the lunch break and trying little tasters of local produce.

By the way, while we are on the subject of edibles:

Menu 3

Tuesday 29th March 2016: Back to Snape we go…

Those involved in Michael Berkeley’s piece Touch Light (seven of us in total) were back in the studio at Snape at 11am on Tuesday morning. I came up to Aldeburgh the night before and stayed an extra night in Elizabeth Court, having not felt too keen to travel and record on the same day. Despite being a fairly short piece, Touch Light proved quite challenging to record. The harmony Michael uses in this piece requires spotlessly pure intonation. Paul in the sound booth was a real stickler! At the time it can be really tough but you know you will be grateful when it all sounds glorious in the final edit. Thanks Paul!

Tuesday 7th June 2016: Spitalfields Festival, St Leonard’s Church, Shoreditch, London

We were very pleased to learn that our Spitalfields Festival performance was to be recorded for broadcast by BBC Radio 3. What a great opportunity! I was particularly fascinated to see how the organisation of recording a concert ‘as live’ works, and was impressed with how efficient the management of the concert was. Petroc Trelawny was there on the balcony introducing each piece in to a microphone for the radio audience only. For me, the highlight of the evening was listening to my wind playing colleagues of the Berkeley Ensemble performing Michael Berkeley’s fiendishly challenging wind quintet Catch Me If You Can. It was a truly electrifying performance. They made it seem really easy but I know the number of hours that were involved it putting it together. Bravo!

It was a real delight to sit down with a glass of wine at home one week later to hear the concert back on the wireless. I was thrilled with how it sounded, as I know we all were.

Sunday 17th July, 2016: Cheltenham Festival, Pittville Pump Room, Cheltenham

Cheltenham Music Festival offers a very impressive programme of events spanning two weeks at the start of July with a prestigious list of participating artists. It is a feather in the cap of the Berkeley Ensemble to have been invited to the festival. Thanks Cheltenham Festival! The Pump Room, a Grade I listed building, stands imposingly in the beautiful grounds of Pittville Lawn. Finished in 1830, the Pump Room was designed as the central building of ‘Pittville’ , a new town development planned in the 1820s by Joseph Pitt and intended to be a spa venue where residents could ‘take the waters’ from the local mineral water wells. I was really taken with the venue and found this little secret on my exploration upstairs (Berkeley Ensemble’s very own bassoonist Andrew Watson is used here for scale.)

Tiny doorway 4

The musical bill at The Pump Room was a great showcase for the Berkeley Ensemble. Alongside the Stabat Mater and Touch Light, we were presenting a couple of chamber works from our repertoire. Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro featured the wonderful Fontane Liang on harp. It was a huge pleasure to work with Fontane and I do hope we will be able to invite her back soon. The wind team were up later on in the first half with Colin Matthews’ Five Concertinos.

We were very well supported at the performance. It was tremendous to have Michael Berkeley at the concert, and also to see Petroc Trelawny there. The large audience seemed to thoroughly enjoy the event and it was a suitably grand finale for our tour. The real finale is still to come, though! The record will be released on 22nd of July, 2016. We have already received one very complimentary review here. I am very excited to see what people make of the product of all this hard work. Its been a wonderful experience. Let us know what you think!