Take 1: our first recording

It’s been over a week now since we finished our first recording project with the Choir of New College, Oxford, but it was an experience that is still fresh in our memories – even though we’ve all been away and immediately occupied again with other projects!

The project saw a collaboration between the singers of the New College choir and twelve Oxford Baroque players, directed by Edward Higginbottom – Professor of Choral Music at the University of Oxford, and Director of New College Choir, with Bojan Čičić leading the band. Together, we recorded three works by the French composer, Marc-Antoine Charpentier. Active at the end of the seventeenth century and into the first few years of the eighteenth, Charpentier was one of the most influential composers in consolidating the French Baroque style, being both highly inventive and incredibly versatile.

The three works included: the dramatic motet (although similar works are often referred to as oratorios, this is in fact a misnomer, as they were written for sacred services – cf. the Charpentier scholar, H. Wiley Hitchcock), Caecilia virgo martyr (H.397); De Profundis (H. 189), a setting of Psalm 130; and another psalm setting (No. 15), in Conserva me, Domine (H. 230). Each of the works showed Charpentier’s sense of willingness to explore unusual harmonic regions through a morass of meandering contrapuntal lines, whilst remaining a sense of cogent rhetoric in their effective vocal writing. The young but highly talented soprano, Oxford graduate, Robyn Parton, sang the part of Caecilia, with all of the other vocal solos coming from within the choir.

For a number of reasons, we chose to record at a’=390. Whilst it has been common for many early music groups to perform French baroque music at a’=392, 390 is at the low end of ‘low’ French pitch, being two Hz lower than a whole town below ‘modern’ pitch (i.e. a’=440). This means that the vocal compasses sit in a rather unfamiliar area for most conventional male-only English collegiate/cathedral-type choirs. The ‘haute-contre’ parts are perhaps the most troubling: although they lie between the ‘dessus’ (top) and ‘taille (tenor) voices, the h-c parts are, in fact, too low for most falsettists and might be better tackled by high tenors – another unusual voice type to those familiar with the English choral music tradition. However, Professor Higginbottom’s eagerness to train young singers who are willing and capable at singing outside of their conventional register meant that a mix of tenors and falsettists on the choral h-c parts, with the solos taken by high tenors, Guy Cutting and me (David Lee), made for a happy vocal compromise and a suitable soundworld.

In terms of the instrumental lineup, we chose to use a continuo section comprising up to two basses de violons (bass violins) and a basse de viole, in addition to a chamber organ. Bass violins are slightly larger than the modern cello and a lower compass, but are likewise played between the legs. Combined with the viol, they gave a warm, glowing sonority, which is effective in underpinning some of the more ethereal moments in Charpentier’s writing. This will be heard chiefly in the instrumental sections of Caecilia.

We will be updating with more information about the project and with future performances of the repertoire in the months to come. However, at this point, it is nice to reflect – to have been able to successfully collaborate with such an accomplished choir and work with the superlative experience and musicality of a director expert in French music. We hope you’re going to be as excited as we are about hearing the finished product when the time comes!