Concerto delle Donne


Review: Limited Edition – The magazine for Buckinghamshire – February 2006

Alice Eaton meets a group of musicians who travelled from High Wycombe to France in search of perfect recording.


Marc-Antoine Charpentier: Music for the Virgin Mary

Concerto delle Donne

Signum Classics SIGCD073


Nuns’ song


With high street music stores positively bulging with recordings by a plethora of musicians and musical groups all competing for shelf space, you could be forgiven for assuming that producing an album of classical music is an easy process.

However, this not the case, as I discovered when I visited the High Wycombe home of professional musicians Gill and Alastair Ross, who this month are releasing a new CD by their group Concerto Delle Donne.

Unlike the golden years when CDs first came about and music producers were falling over themselves to get musicians into the studio and onto the shelves before their competition, the trend in recent years has seen record companies distancing themselves from the whole process, often refusing to put the money behind a project until the production side has been done and dusted. This ca make it a risky and expensive task for any performer , or orchestra for that matter, wanting to release a record. Even the London Symphony Orchestra has been forced to finance their recordings themselves.

So, what is it like for a small, independent group such as Concerto Delle Donne to get a CD produced ?

Gill and Alastair, who formed the group in 1991 with the aim of researching and performing early Italian and French music, were forced to remortgage their home when the funding they were going to receive to make their album fell through.

“ Making a recording today is an uphill battle “, explains Alastair, who, with his wife Gill, regularly performs with some of the world’s top early music groups including The Academy of Ancient Music and the City of London Sinfonia.

“ It is not that we want to make money from this. We are really passionate about the project and we wanted to perform and record this music because we love it “.

But the financial issue is not the only obstacle musicians have to overcome when making a CD. The key to success, Alastair tells me, is to find a theme that sets you apart from the rest. And their CD, Music for the Virgin Mary – celebrating 300 years of Charpentier, certainly has that.

The recording features music by the great French composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704) written for the nuns of Le Port Royal, a convent in the centre of Paris.

Alastair discovered the music, orchestrated for three solo sopranos, a choir of a further six sopranos and organ at La Bibliothèque Nationale de France. He immediately set about translating it into modern notation in order to perform and record the beautiful melodies he had found.

“ This music has been performed by a French group but they are hardly known in the Uk and I don’t believe any British group has performed or recorded it “, explains Alastair.

“ I knew, if we were going to do something like this and compete with other recordings on the market; the only way to set us apart and, more importantly, to do justice to the music, was to achieve a sound that was a close to original as possible “.

So where better to hold the recording than back in the country the music has come from ? Fired with their ambitious project, Alastair and Gill, together with a team of singers and a recording engineer, set sail across the channel in June last year to the beautiful church of Notre-Dame, Rozay en Brie, where Alastair had found an historic organ from 1690, played by the great François Couperin, that he believed would be perfect for the music.

“ It was very exciting as this organ, unlike many that had been modernised in the 19th century, had been left untouched and was still in its original form apart from some careful restoration in the 30th and the 90th. The instrument has a very nasal sound, as it would have sounded. It was quite uncomfortable to play because people were much smaller in 1690 and, by the end of four days of recording, my back was really aching “.

I was treated to a preview snippet of the recording and it really is beautiful. As the nuns were not trained musicians and were performing purely as a way of emphasising their devotion to God, the musical lines in the music are hauntingly simple, accentuated by the unusual use of only sopranos with a simple organ accompaniment. The result sends shivers up to the spine.

The CD contains the Antiphon Ave Regina Caelorum, the Magnificat pour le Port Royal, Th Christmas Cantata in Nativitate, and the Stabat Mater pour les Religieuses. Some additional organ music by Nicolas-Antoine Lebègue (c.1631-1702) and Guillaume Gabriel Nivers (c.1632-1714) was included to give Alastair an opportunity to explore the vivid colours of the organ.

Churchgoers at Notre-Dame are fiercely proud of their organ and turned out in force to hear a performance by Concerto Delle Donne at the end of their recording sessions. The group will be performing back on British soil when they launch the CD at a concert at St John’s, Smith Square, London on February 16.

Music for the Virgin Mary is released by Signum Records.

For more information on the group, visit Checkout for more information on the Rozay organ.