Robert Hollingworth’s blog – January 2012

The last few months have meant: more fundraising, more planning and a huge amount of time with Hugh Keyte looking at the two works he has expanded for this project; fiddling with them, checking ranges, trying to find the most idiomatic way to set certain words (sometime the original parts stop for a few bars so it’s not reconstruction but composition).  All the singers and players booked – now it all starts and is always over very quickly.  Six days to make it all gel and re-create a Vespers service – five psalms, hymn, magnificat and all the other bits.

Jan 15

2pm  To All Saints Tooting where we made the Striggio recording.  We’re just here for this rehearsal.  It’s wonderfully warm which is unusual…  Malcolm Greenhalgh (tuning the organs) warns us that it’s rather cooler at the recording venue where he was just preparing instruments for tomorrow.

Start off with the ‘amateur’ but really rather fabulous ‘De Profundis’ choir who will be singing the plainchant.  Laying down of a few ground rules to get the sound away from Oxbridge and closer to north Italy.  Lower tongues, higher cheeks, more breath supporting through the text instead of that northern European broken-up style. Not too bothered about detail at this stage. Just getting everyone fully immersed in the text and style.

A few instrumentalists start to arrive: Bjarte Eike flying in from Copenhagen to play violin and viola; Gawain Glenton with his new toy – a cornet at A493 (up a tone from modern pitch).  We listen to his divvies (divisions or ornamentations) on a motet.

Then into the Soriano Ave Maris Stella variations which combine short but familiar plainchant melodies with quite vigorous instrumental counterpoint.  Hugh Keyte (whose research underpins much of this recording) is bobbing about like an excited schoolboy, throwing in ideas and then worried he’s said too much!  These fiddly pieces gradually settle as everyone’s ears get accustomed.

Onto Palestrina Song of Songs – an intimate moment in such a large-scale project.  Just a fabulous noise and sensuous approach from Anna, Clare, Mark Dobell (who we’ve rarely had the pleasure of working with before), Nick HS and Charles.

Clare sings a newly transcribed and Viadana monody.  Lots of discussion about alternate ‘figures’ (indicators of harmony) as there always is in this sort of music.  David Roblou (my former continuo teacher from Guildhall) making his presence felt on organ. I like the way he tries various things out.  It’s not all just taste in this music: there are wrong ways to do things but also many right ways.

Jonny Sells arrives to rehearse his extraordinary bass solo – ‘Ab aeterno’. Gorgia (throat-articulated passagework) is a fragile thing to get right and needs an absolute understanding of the direction it’s going in from the accompanists.  It’s so unusual to hear a bass-baritone with the full range but also the flexibility to handle this sort of music.

Hear how Ab aeterno turned out

Good start.  The complicated work with large numbers of people starts tomorrow.

Jan 16

Here we go.  I arrive at St John’s Upper Norwood 40 minutes before kick-off and the place is already awash with cameras, both from this project and also from ‘Shakespeare – The Sonnets’, on which I was music director. Because that project was put together in a studio practically one instrument at a time, they’ve never had the opportunity to photo everyone together so they’ll be pretending that this session is the Shakespeare  (see the demo for that at )

So off we go with Giovanni Gabrieli’s Magnificat, reconstituted for seven choirs by Hugh Keyte from only two surviving choirs: except that British transport and motorways closed by accidents mean that there are some holes in that texture to start with.  At this stage, with musicians this good, there’s not too much to say.  They just need to feel what the piece does and then very quickly get into the swing of it. Fabulous high singing from Nicholas Mulroy and Eamonn Dougan who take no prisoners.  Inspiring playing from Bjarte Eike too, who immediately imprints his personality onto the piece (in a good way).  Singers getting to grips with the sixth comma meantone, which implies purer thirds than equal temperament.

In the afternoon, we unleash Hugh’s expansion of ‘In Ecclesiis’ (see his rationale for this in the CD sleeve note).  Standing in the middle, it completely makes sense.  The balance is better between the groups and the imitation between original voice and new parts feels totally natural.  Fabulous cornett playing from Gawain, Sam and Helen and more heroic solo singing all round.  What a line-up of performers! There’s such intensity.

Jan 17

So today the focus is entirely on the Viadana psalms for four different groups.   I have to say that I’ve been a little worried about this.  Fiona Russell showed me the publication they came from just after the Striggio recording.  I was very taken with them and they’re clearly historically very interesting and deserve to be recorded.  But there is always the issue of physical sound and whether they will really feel good.

The first session is with the solo group.  I’ve been looking forward to this. I have taken the reasonable liberty of freely  ornamenting the solo parts in advance – not at cadences (they’ll do this themselves) – but just about everywhere else.  I know the style, sing it myself and hope this will achieve a stylistic unity to it as well as adding considerable rhythmic interest (notably in various forms of dotting, following Caccini).  If we had more rehearsal time and some performances first, perhaps we would have let this develop naturally but we don’t.  Actually it immediately feels quite good.  I’ve used a lot of gruppi (an early form of written-out trill) because Nick Smith and Julia Doyle are particularly good with these. I’ve also thrown in trilli (fast repeated notes on the same pitch) on unexpected short notes as Caccini indicates you should do. (One generally hears them just at cadences).

Loving this!  Their singing is sounding very spontaneous and enormous fun.  Hugh is extremely taken with the music – hugely inventive.  Why haven’t we heard it before?

In the afternoon, the capella (four-part choir, two to a part) arrives.  They sing in dialogue with and reinforcing the soloists.  Eight marvellous singers who bring thrust and vitality to the process.  And reinforcing them, high (left) and low (right) choirs of mixed instrumental colours, as suggested by Viadana.  Bjarte and Gawain having a lot of fun trying things out on the top two lines.  Bill Lyons is trying out different reeds to help the dulcian (early bassoon) cut through.  All of them immediately picking up singers’ wordstress which indicates the phrasing.

I think by the end of the day, we all really excited by this.  It’s not music that has been performed professionaly before and it has jumped off the page with energetic and colouristic solo singing, whose enthusiasm has infected the rest of the ensemble.  And like the Striggio sessions, we all feel the thrill of a big ensemble for this music as it’s financially increasingly rare to get the chance to put this number of performers of this repertoire together.


The next three days of recording will I hope speak for themselves.  We managed to stick mostly to schedule despite leaf-blowers hanging around near the church. One bad moment in the most expensive session (40 performers there) when a police helicopter just sat over the church for 20 minutes: I could count the money just leaking away with every minute.  So that session went into overtime but it finished with the fabulous experience of doing the 8-voice verses from Monteverdi’s ‘Ave Maris Stella’ in a rather less gentle style than is customary, following Hugh’s idea about the character assigned to the Virgin at Lepanto [Read more in Hugh’s notes]. For me, this 8-voice setting is one of the great pieces of this era and it was great to work on it, however briefly.

Ave Maris Stella by Monteverdi

Other moments to remember: various solo things, especially the flair and utter understanding of style in James Johnstone’s Andrea Gabrieli organ toccata, despite his cold hands: Hugh retreating to the back of the church to weep as he heard his 15-year project of the Gab Mag finally working; the singers’ constant commitment to text; the general love of this music displayed by our supporters who financially made this possible and who were so thrilled to attend the rehearsal.

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