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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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