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Sounds of St. Martin’s

One afternoon a few weeks ago, I was driving my car behind a slow tractor which took up the entire width of a very narrow country track. It’s not an uncommon experience in the North Hampshire Downs. This is Finzi country: I was just a few miles from the village of Ashmansworth where that composer lived for many years. But it wasn’t for Finzi that I was here today. I was headed to St. Martin’s church, in the village of East Woodhay.

The church sits among fields, with only a few houses dotted around. Rebuilt on the site of an older church in 1823, it has a red brick and flint exterior, and is pleasingly nestled in the landscape – framed by mature trees, while further behind rises the imposing flank of Pilot Hill, one of the highest points in Hampshire.

I had been inside the church once before: in 2016 I heard a Newbury Spring Festival concert here given by the choir Stile Antico. Back then, it seemed a magical spot to come to listen to madrigals, among the budding greenery in the lingering twilight of a May evening.

But St. Martin’s also has a reputation for excellent acoustics, and with this asset it has developed a remarkable musical double life – one which goes beyond hosting concerts, as happens in churches up and down the land.

While most people have never set foot in East Woodhay, if you regularly listen to classical records there’s a good chance your ears have spent time in this church. Having grown up locally, I first noticed its name on the back of my Naxos CD of the Purcell viol fantasias. The website Discogs shows well over a hundred albums linked to the place.

I arranged to meet with Hugh and Kate Cobbe, who kindly agreed to show me around. Hugh has been organist here for about thirty years, and Kate recently took over managing its artist bookings. But I wasn’t expecting the rest of Hugh’s impressive CV: a former head of music at the British Library and president of the Royal Musical Association, and now chairman of the RVW Trust.

We entered the interior, which is open and airy – white walls, wooden beams on the ceiling, stained glass windows. In the chancel at the far end, the organ loomed in front of the altar.

As Hugh told me, the decision to hire out the church for music recording was initially made to help fund a rebuild of this instrument, which was in very bad shape. His musical connections were useful to find artists to record here in the late 1980s. And by the time the organ was repaired in 1991 – at a cost of about £25,000 – the extra income proved so useful for the church that it was decided to continue the recordings as a sideline.

It’s not only the acoustics that gives the church an advantage as a recording space. There’s also its quiet setting, far removed from anything resembling a main road. This makes it particularly favourable for capturing the nuances of intimate music making. St. Martin’s has been called ‘ideal for chamber music’, and looking through the albums recorded here, you find pianos, solo voice and string quartets are well represented: one of the earlier recordings was part of the excellent Elizabeth Maconchy quartet cycle released by Regis records.

Still, as Kate explained, neighbourly co-operation is important. ‘There are people living around here […] one relies on their good will not to do major building works. In winter it’s a bit tricky as there’s a lot of shooting that goes on on Saturdays, but on the whole recordings happen Monday to Friday.’

Sadly, the same remoteness among narrow lanes also prevents St. Martin’s from having a bigger concert schedule. The annual Newbury Spring Festival date is a popular social event – ‘they’re always absolutely sold out’, Kate said – but an adjacent field has to be used for overflow parking. What works for one night in May would become hopelessly churned up in winters months. ‘We’d be sued for broken ankles’.

The reverberation in the space was much in evidence as we spoke. But I know very little about acoustics, and the way experts talk about it seems a bit like the flowery language of wine connoisseurs to me. I wanted to know: what made this church particularly good?

‘It’s much larger than most churches in a single space,’ Hugh ventured. ‘We’re not all pillars up and down.’ It’s certainly true that the nave is very open, and likewise, there are no transepts for sound to escape into (the areas going off to the side which make a church cruciform). Meanwhile, the room under its tower is separated by doors, and can serve as a sound control centre.

I suppose this rectangular space is not so dissimilar to the classic ‘shoebox’ shape of concert hall design, albeit on a smaller scale. When the church was rebuilt, it must have emphasised the effect of preaching – one can imagine whiskery Victorian sermons  bouncing resoundingly off these walls.

In a spot where it’s easy to imagine the industrial revolution never happened, it’s perhaps no surprise that early music makes a strong showing among the recordings. Kate Macoboy and Robert Meunier are a lute-song duo who recorded their album Michelangelo’s Madrigal here, and a piece on their website praises its ‘relatively short reverberation time, similar to the rooms where our music was performed historically’. This, they argue, provides ‘a more natural evocation of the historical experience than would have been possible to recreate in the deliberately neutral acoustics of today’s recording studio’.

In an email to me, the pianist James Lisney kindly shared his experiences of recording in the church. He described the acoustics as ‘beautifully natural and unobtrusive […] the piano textures were revealed in great clarity but also with warmth’. There are of course practical considerations to getting a recording team, gear and instruments as large as a grand piano to a church in a small rural village. But as Lisney told me, silent heating units make the space comfortable, and ‘the only issue in recording was finding a flat area of stone for the piano stool to sit without wobbling’. He certainly finds that the tranquil location makes for pleasant working:

One morning I rose early to get to the church to enjoy some time at the piano. It was a classic ‘first day of spring’, with a pronounced weather change inspiring a huge range of animals to greet the day in front of me as I made my way through the country lanes. A majestic owl, rabbits, deer, a badger – the morning was truly wonderful and a unique way to prepare for the day to come.

As it happens, St. Martin’s is not even the only building in East Woodhay with a history of recording music. Just down the road is the grand 19th-century Baronial chateau Stargove House, which was once owned by Mick Jagger and became the location of the Rolling Stones’ mobile recording studio. This was apparently used by Bob Marley and Deep Purple, among others. (Later on, Stargrove House was also briefly owned by Rod Stewart).

Perhaps there is something musical in the air up here in the North Hampshire Downs. Hugh and Kate told me bookings have slightly tapered off in recent years – even before the disruption of the pandemic. And ironically, Hugh said, the one instrument that recording musicians don’t seem interested in using is the one that started it all off: the organ. But St. Martin’s continues to be a valued recording venue, lending its secluded Hampshire sound-world to the homes of listeners near and far.

Visit the St. Martin’s Church website here

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Maconchy: Concertino For Clarinet And Strings

Elizabeth Maconchy is probably best known today for her remarkable set of thirteen string quartets. But another work of hers has recently appeared on an album of British clarinet concertos, and it very much shares the terse drama of her chamber music.

Rediscovered is a fascinating release from clarinetist Peter Cigleris, with the BBC NOW and conductor Ben Palmer. It brings together four clarinet rarities from the first half of the 20th century, including works by Susan Spain-Dunk, Rudolph Dolmetsch, and Peter Wishart. But Maconchy’s Concertino for clarinet and string orchestra, from 1945, is in many ways a stylistic outlier on this disc.

This pithy, punchy drama is built from small motivic cells. Its three short movements are full of compelling intelligence, but there’s a hunched guardedness to this tightly-packed music too. It’s as if it’s afraid of stretching out too comfortably, and revealing a vulnerability.

The string writing here emphasises the darker low registers, and it’s not exactly full of sweet harmony. More often the orchestra stabs in furious unison, brow firmly furrowed. Her lines love the austere shapes of flattened intervals, the morbid tug of a minor second. But against all this, the piercing warmth of the clarinet makes for a fascinating foil – like a bright chalk highlight on a charcoal sketch. It’s particularly effective when she allows it to unfurl indulgently across its wide register.

At the beginning, the clarinet seems like a fly that the orchestra are trying to swat: it darts around on high above their short, pinching phrases. This soon gives way to one of Maconchy’s most characteristic passages. Few composers make their string writing creep so compellingly. Quiet, sinuous lines overlap with the suspense of a slowly emerging horror, like an ant’s nest waking up.

The second movement brings no light relief either. The strings start off in a sulk – short jerking phrases over a funeral beat. A desolate clarinet solo seems to toy indecisively between major and minor thirds. But when the strings gather strength in a tense climax, it flies into a series of high trills, a hunted animal turned frantic. Only when the music dies down does it finally come to rest on the bleaker minor thirds, panting soft and low.

The third movement is given a lift with a sprightlier triplet feel, and there are even folky touches in some leaping string figurations – perhaps a nod to Maconchy’s Irish roots. But the rhythms of jollity are soon hammered out of it, and the strings find a new source of unstable energy in a series of swelling chords.

For a while we veer between agitation and despondent slumps, but eventually, crunch time comes. Over a laser-focussed tremolo string note, the clarinet leaps up with several dramatic pleas, a last-ditch defendant in the dock.

The strings deliberate their response in a furiously condensed reprise of the movement’s themes. But the verdict, as it turns out, is one of surprise reprieve. In the final flourish, the clarinet reaches up high and finds that bright major third.

Rediscovered is available from Signum Records. Visit Peter Cigleris’s website here.

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Cithare En Iran

I’ve recently been exploring music of the Persian classical tradition. There’s a lot of it available on YouTube, but I wanted to share one of my favourite discoveries in particular, an album by the santur player Faramarz Payvar (1933-2009).

If you’ve never listened to Persian music before, then a bit of context may help. As musicologist Hormoz Farhat describes, the classical tradition is fundamentally monophonic and modal. It’s related to (but distinct from) the Arabian and Turkish traditions, and it includes improvisation alongside composed pieces.

Farhat’s study is fascinating for its description of the specific dynamics that have shaped Persian music in recent centuries, which include religious censure and flawed attempts to apply Western theoretical models. (He also argues the case for preferring ‘Persian’ over ‘Iranian’, which I won’t try to repeat here but will simply go along with him).

The santur is a type of hammered dulcimer, an instrumental family that doesn’t enjoy huge prestige in Western classical music. But in the hands of a master like Payvar, it is undeniably capable of real poetry. It has a crisp sound, ranging from sweet delicacy to nasal harshness, that is carried in a bloom of decaying notes like a cloud of smoke.

On this record, Payvar shows that monophony need not mean monotony. Rapidly alternating hammers can give the impression of several parts at once, as well as a tremolando effect on a single note that allows for dynamic swells. One instant he makes a driving gallop, the next softly drumming rain. The scope for expressive melodic ornamentation, so important to this tradition, is immense.

Cithare En Iran, Santur was released by the French label Pathé Marconi EMI in 1979, one of their Arabesques series which featured Middle Eastern musicians. Running to 43 minutes, Payvar’s recital showcases a Dastgāh. The Dastgāh is a Persian system for structuring a performance. As Farhat puts is, there are twelve Dastgāhs, but each one:

identifies a set of pieces, traditionally grouped together, most of which have their own individual modes. It also stands for the modal identity of the initial piece in the group. This mode has a position of dominance as it is brought back frequently, throughout the performance of the group of pieces, in the guise of cadential melodic patterns.

In this case the performance is of Nava, one of the less commonly heard Dastgāhs. But being unfamiliar with Persian modes should be no major barrier, as some aspects of the music are very intuitive to grasp.

The introductory Darāmad passages, for instance, unfold in the manner of ruminative preludes, while the Čahārmezrāb facilitates virtuoso display, much like an étude. The cadential patterns that Farhat mentions – Forud – are not hard to discern either. One that occurs here is rather charmingly known as the ‘pigeon’s wing’, a stately drop of the interval of a fourth.

Payvar’s elegant sculpting of lines through pacing, dynamics, and ornamentation makes this album a blissful listen. If you can read French, the impressively detailed sleevenotes by Jean-Claude Chabrier can be found here (and if you can’t, you can still admire their extremely 1970s brown and cream colour scheme).

If you’d like to listen to more Persian classical music, I highly recommend the Hafdang YouTube channel, which is both a fantastic resource and an exemplar of slick music video presentation.

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The Centre Is Everywhere

An album by Manchester Collective was recently released with the intriguing title The Centre Is Everywhere. It features a work of the same name by Edmund Finnis, alongside music by Philip Glass and Schoenberg.

Finnis’s piece is for twelve string players. It drew me in gently on the first listen – I found it both absorbing and enigmatic. But I was surprised that its mystical-sounding title was not explained in any of the record’s marketing, as far as I could see.

Curious to find out more, I got in touch with the Manchester Collective’s co-founder Adam Szabo, who kindly put me in touch with the composer.

As Finnis explained by email, the work owes its title to The Book Of The Twenty-Four Philosophers – a Medieval text which contains different definitions of God. The second of these definitions became quite influential in the following centuries:

An infinite sphere whose centre is everywhere and circumference is nowhere.

As one interesting paper describes, this idea of God as a sphere whose centre is everywhere has informed thinkers such as Meister Eckhart and Nicholas of Cusa. It was also taken up by the Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan for his concept of ‘acoustic space’ in media – the idea that information comes at us from all sides at once (like sound) and does not have a fixed boundary, whereas written information is sequential and closed off, an extension of the eye.

As Finnis described to me, he borrowed from this theological phrase because it seemed to fit the ideas he was thinking about – of foregrounds and backgrounds in music, and shapes and patterns passing between groups of instruments. And scoring The Centre Is Everywhere for twelve players – a highly divisible number – certainly gives plenty of room for playing with layers.

This music creates its own acoustic space. It uses a framing effect, in that it emerges out of (and back into) a void of whispering, pitchless bowed sounds. The piece does not so much begin as come into focus – at first tentatively, and then more fully. As if we’re tuning in to something beyond normal perception.

A bundle of lines shifts fitfully, trying to find a coherent shape. But it begins to build into longer breaths, as more layers intertwine. Many of the parts rise and fall in scales, others sound like broken-chord figurations – elements which in another work might be accompaniment material, supporting a main theme.

But there is no clear foreground, no main theme. Nothing seems to assert itself over and above the rest: instead the overall effect is of an exquisitely wrought kaleidoscope, in which our attention is everywhere. And that is where the principal fascination comes.

Finnis certainly knows how to exploit the resonance of strings, creating compelling ghostly shades and ethereal shimmers. And while he makes expressive use of dissonance, this piece falls very easily on the ear as it unfolds, expands, and recedes.

But if the centre of our attention is everywhere, then it is also nowhere. A natural consequence is that the piece doesn’t create memorable themes as such – instead it creates a memorably spatial impression. In that sense it seems to mirror the condition of deep contemplation, in which the structures of perception dissolve.

The Centre Is Everywhere is available on Bandcamp. Read more about Manchester Collective at Gramophone and Vents Magazine.

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Le Jeune: Le Printemps

New on Patreon: the charming songs by a composer of the French Renaissance who ‘pulled back suffering rhythm from the tomb where it lay for so long prostrate’. Subscribers can read more about the music of Claude Le Jeune here.

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Clare Hammond – Gubaidulina

First, one of those embarrassing small musical world admissions: the pianist Clare Hammond was a contemporary of mine at university. Although I didn’t know her well, I won’t forget the day I heard her give a solo recital in a college chapel. Many of my fellow undergraduates were excellent musicians, but I was blown away by her playing. It was immediately clear that Hammond was a pianist of the highest standard, with a potential career as a solo artist shining brightly before her. 

As I recall, her programme that day included a piece by the Australian composer Carl Vine. Evidently she was someone who cared about venturing beyond the core classical repertoire and into the world of contemporary music – very much my kind of musician.

That exploratory curiosity has certainly been borne out in the intervening years, as is demonstrated by Hammond’s discography. Her latest album, Variations, brings together pieces by Symanowski, Birtwistle and Hindemith, among others. But the stand-out piece for me is the final track: Sofia Gubaidulina’s Chaconne, an early work from 1962, coming in at just under ten minutes.

This is a ferocious piece – one I didn’t know before, but which gripped me immediately. It announces itself with broad fortissimo chords like granite blocks, a brutal equivalent to the stately opening you might expect from the title’s Baroque form. Soon we hear the era’s pompous dotted rhythms too. But this is the Baroque recast in a modern mould: dissonances crunch, chords tug mysteriously in parallel movements. 

The first few iterations of the theme keep fairly steady, but soon the music starts to disintegrate, exploding into passages of virtuosity as Gubaidulina furiously reinvents her material, including some terrifying thundering octaves. I love how she toys with the familiar textures of old music – its balanced, intuitive patterns – but then keeps tearing these elements apart. At times it’s as though Bach were reconstructed for the industrial age: resurrected into a world of clanging steel girders and roaring traffic.

And as it happens, this Chaccone is having a bit of a moment in the limelight right now, as it featured in the recent Wigmore Hall livestream by rising star Isata Kanneh-Mason, part of a programme of works for International Women’s Day. Watching Kanneh-Mason’s performance makes an equally strong impression, and I can’t help but feel that if someone like Stravinsky had written this piece it would be revered as a masterpiece of 20th-century piano repertoire.

I highly recommend exploring Hammond’s discography, and in particular I draw your attention to her recording of Unsuk Chin’s formidable Etudes. Hammond wrote an admirably candid article about the effort it took to learn these works, spending ‘months pounding away in a practice room underground’, but eventually finding her own way to make them speak. I wouldn’t trust many musicians to succeed in that aim, but she certainly does.

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Kenneth Leighton: Laudes Musicae

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Green Bushes

Last Sunday was a beautiful spring day, so I decided to go for a walk. I had a route in mind, and drove a few miles to the large, flat expanse of Greenham Common. This former military site – synonymous with anti-nuclear protest camps in the 1980s – once contained one of the longest runways in Europe. Happily, it was converted back to grazing and recreation land about 20 years ago. It’s now a fantastic community resource, and I walk and cycle there a lot. But it was only my starting point this time.

I headed off on a path leaving the common. It follows a wooded gulley which runs down into the Kennet valley below. I love this path – with huge mature trees looming either side of you, and a small stream winding down, it’s like entering a little pocket of another world.

This area is unusually rich in history, even by British standards. Nearby is a site where Palaeolithic hand axes were discovered – the tools of nomadic hunters who camped here as early as 13,000 years ago. Other evidence suggests the possibility of continuous habitation in this part of the valley for the last 10,000 years, though it’s difficult to prove conclusively.

My plan was to get to the canalised river Kennet, then turn west along the towpath, eventually coming back up the hillside on a different footpath which I’d noticed on my OS map, but had never walked before.

A pool beside the Kennet and Avon canal.

Following the river, I started to hum a tune that I’d heard on Radio 3 that morning. It was the folk song Green Bushes, from Percy Grainger’s orchestral setting.

I already knew (and loved) a slightly different version of this tune in The New Penguin Book Of English Folk Songs. The lyrics start with the narrator going for a walk in May, and having a chance encounter with a young girl. He then proposes she forsake her true love and marry him – somewhat hastily, it must be said, but that’s folksong for you.

When I had first seen the tune in my book, I imagined it as a gently flowing melody. But the Grainger version on the radio treated it so energetically, that at first I didn’t recognise it. It sounds slightly demented: a psychedelic spring, bursting with life and libido.

In fact, if you look through an English folksong collection, you’ll find that a remarkable number of them begin with a variation on this theme: walking out in the spring and having a chance encounter. What is it about that scenario? I suppose spring is a metaphor for youth – one reason why poets idealise it. A fine spring day is like discovering life afresh. The land is awakening. No wonder it seems ripe with possibility, romantic or otherwise.

But while instant marriage proposals are mostly the stuff of fiction, spring is certainly a good time to find nature. Last year I heard a cuckoo calling along this stretch of towpath. It was tantalisingly close, and I stood for several minutes trying to spot it among the trees – all in vain. It’s still too early for their arrival this year, so on Sunday I had to make do with the laughing ‘yaffle’ of a green woodpecker, wafting mockingly on the breeze. Meanwhile a wren flitted among the dry reeds, firing its bullet notes beside the sparkling water, a tiny ball of cock-tailed aggression.

When I found the footpath heading back up the hill, I was surprised by a startlingly long perspective: the far end of Newbury Racecourse, its length extremely foreshortened behind a wire fence. On my other side, an enclosed field was bedecked with signs warning me it was ‘not a play area’ (it hardly looked like a plausible candidate for one).

Such sights only remind you how much of Britain’s countryside is enclosed for one private use or another – whether military, agricultural, or moneyed recreation. The colonisation of south-east England by golf courses, for example, is one particularly rampant and much-discussed phenomenon.

This makes the rare instances of public reclamation, like Greenham Common, especially precious. Because in the English countryside you’re always under suspicion of over-stepping a boundary. Any spring walk will almost certainly include chance encounters with the signage of paranoid landowners: Keep Out. Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted. At least we can deceive ourselves that birdsong is joyful – this ugly human territoriality only sings a sour note.

Thankfully, a happier discovery awaited me further up the path. It was the entrance to a nature reserve I never knew existed before: Bowdown Woods. Here was a more welcoming sign, showing several nature trails that dip through the wooded gullies carved by streams flowing down to the Kennet.

It was clear that this was a more scenic route back to my car, so I took the diversion. The gamble of trying out a new path paid off, and the ramble up and down the surprisingly steep gulley sides, with glimpses of valley views through the tall trees, was delightful.

I look forward to coming back here again as the months progress. As it happens, I made a firm new year’s resolution to finally spot a cuckoo. If I’m successful, perhaps I will see the same one I heard last year – returning to the Kennet’s side from his African winter, singing in hope of his own romantic liaison.

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A Walk With Haydn

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Anton Arensky, String Quartet No. 2

The YouTube autoplay algorithm took me to a striking place last night. I don’t recall listening to much of Anton Arensky’s music before, if any at all, but while I was busy with other tasks autoplay alighted on his string quartet no. 2. The repeating opening chords at first made me think I was listening to a piece of modern minimalism like Philip Glass, then I glanced at my laptop to see it was composed in 1894.

The quartet is written in memory of the recently deceased Tchaikovsky, and unusually, it features two cellos instead of two violins, shifting the ensemble’s centre of gravity down into the lower, richer registers (an interesting parallel, perhaps, to the four Wagner tubas inserted into Bruckner’s 7th symphony a decade earlier). 

That’s not the only thing that struck me. A while ago I wrote about how much I love hymn tunes used in instrumental music – well here is a prime example, as the first movement is based on an Orthodox Psalm melody, and includes some chorale-like textures amongst its more idiomatic string quartet writing. The second movement is an extensive theme and variations on Tchaikovsky’s own ‘Legend’ from his Children’s Songs Op. 54, and the short finale sets a sombre funeral mass theme that unexpectedly breaks into a triumphant folksong in a quasi-fugal style – as if to remind us that mourning the dead composer should also mean celebrating his life.

Autoplay often serves up forgettable works, but this piece immediately grabbed me. There is such a wonderful sincerity and clarity to Arensky’s melodic scheme – by borrowing widely for his themes, he seems to suggest the whole world is mourning Tchaikovsky. It’s also a superbly written piece, but one which never lets the need to be Serious Chamber Music get in the way of its songful soul. This is a remarkable work, and a fitting tribute to a wonderful melodist – and I look forward to exploring more of Arensky’s music.

You can listen and follow with a score here