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It’s a wrap!

19 February, 2015

It’s been a whirlwind week for Stile Antico. Tomorrow morning we fly to the US to begin a two-week, eight-concert tour, but whilst we were collecting visas, packing suitcases and viewing alarmingly chilly weather forecasts, we had the small matter of a recording to deal with.

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Stile Antico has been happily signed to Harmonia Mundi USA from the beginning, producing on average one disc per year during our first decade. The project we have just completed, A Wondrous Mystery, is our tenth for the label, and will be released during our tenth-anniversary season, towards the end of 2015. We’re thrilled that Harmonia Mundi will also be releasing a compilation drawn from all our previous recordings to celebrate our tenth birthday!

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The sessions (six, spread across four days) took place at our favourite recording venue, the church of All Hallows in Gospel Oak, London. Tucked away just south of Hampstead Heath, it may not look beautiful from the outside but it has a glorious acoustic, reputedly enhanced by the fact that the money ran out as it was being built: instead of the planned lofty stone vault, it has a flat wooden ceiling. We were joined by the ‘dream team’ of producer Robina Young and engineer Brad Michel, who have been with us since our first disc. Brad knows better than anyone how to capture the beautiful sound of this building, but we always like to try new things, and we set aside an extra hour at the beginning of our sessions to try moving around the space, searching for that elusive combination of warmth, presence and balance. Here’s a little sneak preview of the results!

The repertoire for the new recording is taken from our recent Christmas concerts: a luscious mass by Clemens non Papa interspersed with attractive Lutheran carols and motets. Recording Christmas music out of season (we ended on Ash Wednesday!) is an occupational hazard: in order for the disc to reach the market at the right time of year, you need to start early. We pulled out all the stops to try and create a festive mood, with fairy lights, reindeer antlers and Christmas sweaters all making appearances at various points!

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Since we had a lot of music to record (the finished disc will weigh in at over seventy minutes), we were particularly grateful to have very little problem with external noise. Previous recordings have been interrupted by London Overground trains, ambulances heading to the Royal Free, nearby building work, the adjacent school, windows rattling in the wind, and (most memorably) a drip from the ceiling during the sessions for Puer natus est which necessitated some drastic action on the part of our then-bass, Oliver Hunt. The extent of our troubles this time round was the recurrent appearance of an enigmatic boiler-suited man with a bucket, seemingly oblivious to our efforts to capture some elusive phrases of plainchant.

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Mr Hunt contends with the drip

Recording with an unconducted group has its particular challenges: as a singer you need to be able to concentrate on giving your absolute best, but at the same time to have enough detachment to listen to the overall effect, to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of your musical ideas, and to solve problems as they arise. It is a hugely rewarding process, but one which takes an enormous amount of energy and concentration.

We always begin recording a piece by singing a ‘listening take’, and heading en masse downstairs to the production desk for an invaluable perspective on how things are sounding. A good deal of discussion can then ensue – at various points during these sessions we moved singers around, decided to reduce numbers on certain vocal lines, improved our thoughts about tempo and came up with different dynamic schemes. Fortunately our producer Robina is a past master at making sure we keep our collective eye on the ball (and the clock), whilst allowing us plenty of space to refine the detail.

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A particular highlight of this project was the chance to welcome several of our Patrons to observe one of the sessions. This is the first time we have made this benefit available as part of the Friends of Stile Antico scheme through the Stile Antico Foundation, and our Patrons seemed to find it very interesting! They were joined by a number of journalists, meaning that we had the unusual – but rather pleasant – experience of singing a recording session to a small audience. We hope that all involved enjoyed this behind-the-scenes look at our work.

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The job of creating the new recording doesn’t stop here. We look forward to receiving the first edit of the disc over the next few months, at which point everyone in the group will listen to it and comment. We then send a digest of the most important requests back to Harmonia Mundi, who will edit the disc further. We will also be drawing together our programme notes, texts and translations, proof-reading and commenting on the artwork and disc insert, ready to be sent for production a few months prior to the launch date.

In the meantime, we look forward to concerts in Durham and Davidson, NC, Washington, DC, Kansas City, New York, Boston, Miami and Columbus, OH over the next fortnight. We will be blogging daily whenever possible, and sharing news and review on our Facebook and Twitter pages throughout the period.

Now, where has that passport gone…