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SEEN AND HEARD INTERVIEW
The Tallis Scholars’ and Gimell Records’ 30th Anniversary: Peter Phillips and Steve Smith in conversation with John Quinn (JQ)
Part Two - Gimell Records:
John Quinn Now, we’re here particularly because of an anniversary. On 22 and 23 March 1980 The Tallis Scholars made their first Gimell recording, which included Allegri’s ‘Miserere’ [CD GIM 339 and GIM SE 401], and that was how you came into the picture, Steve. How did you first become involved with The Tallis Scholars?
Well it started earlier than1980. In fact my first connection came back in 1976. I was studying music and recording techniques at Surrey University. It’s a course called the Tonmeister course. And the great thing about that course was that we had a mobile recording unit. It was in an old Ford Luton van, choc full of equipment. And through a mutual friend I was asked to come and record a concert by a choir in Oxford, I just turned up; I didn’t really know what to expect. I’m not sure I even knew what the repertoire was. I did know it was in Merton Chapel and I did know that that was an interesting place to work, so I think that was part of the impetus. But I just turned up to record a concert and loved what I heard. The connection continued because shortly after that Peter got in touch saying “Well, you’ve recorded a concert; can we record an LP?” – as it was in those days. So I think that was in early ‘77.
PP Well I remember talking to you about that outside the door of Merton. The back door that’s never used now.
SS You always had a better memory than me!
PP I remember the van being there, parked outside that back door and talking to you outside, just between the van and the door, about the possibility of making a record.
SS Well there we go. So Peter was thinking of it back then. It was an interesting proposition for me because as part of my degree course I had to prepare a portfolio of recordings of various different styles and having one very good recording of Renaissance music was going to prove useful. I think you can describe it as an amateurish recording. But we’ve got it, we own it and one of these days I may find the master tapes and dust them down and see if we can do anything with it.
So that was the start of the connection and in fact by the time we came here in 1980 to record the Allegri disc, which is the famous disc and the first Gimell recording, I had already made, I think, two LP recordings with The Tallis Scholars, but they were different affairs. The big difference for me was that in 1980 we turned up with a professional recording engineer. Before that I was the recording engineer and I was also the producer. Those recordings were made in London, not in such an ideal acoustic. The Allegri recording was made in 1980, knowing it was going to be released, wanting to get exactly the best team together we could to make the best possible disc we could at that time, So there was a clear starting point there in terms of it being a professional recording, rather than the recordings we made beforehand which I’d classify as student recordings.
But there was nothing amateurish at all about that recording of Allegri, Palestrina and Mundy. That was a very professional thing, but it didn’t first appear on the Gimell label; it was on the Classics for Pleasure label, I think?
SS Well what happened was that by then I’d been out of university for three years, I think, and I was doing freelance work for Classics for Pleasure, aiming to build a career as a record producer. And I believe I made the suggestion to them that the Allegri would be a good piece to add to their catalogue. In those days there was the King’s recording and, I think, nothing else around. They were keen on the idea. I took them to hear The Tallis Scholars do a concert in London, where they were performing the Allegri, and there was a lot of enthusiasm. But what happened, in brief, was that shortly before the sessions were due to take place - and at this point the singers were booked and we were all excited by the prospect - we were then told that the bosses in the hierarchy at EMI, which owned Classics for Pleasure, wouldn’t approve the budget to record the record. And so, theoretically, that was the end of the project.
JQ That must have set you thinking.
SS Well, I just found it embarrassing, because the singers had been booked, I’d whipped up Peter’s enthusiasm, and the prospect that we’d then cancel it was just horrifying, really. And so I then asked if, rather than EMI paying the bill I could, as it were, pay the bill and I would licence it to them as a business proposition. Which is exactly what happened. And, of course, that turned very much to our advantage because the disc was extremely successful. There was only one chart in the UK in those days. It was the HMV Chart and in 1981 we were at Number One for a few weeks; it was jolly exciting. But, of course, we owned the recording and other things happened in the following year when we decided that we would start Gimell as a proper label rather than just as a business that would licence recordings to other companies. Of course, within a few years, when the licence expired, EMI wanted to renew it and we said “Oh, no! Absolutely not!” But that’s why initially the first Gimell recording was on a different label. And actually, interestingly enough, other labels started in the same way. Chandos used to make recordings for RCA and Hyperion’s Ted Perry was working for Meridian Records. So these things need a place to start.
JQ And it struck me, just driving here today, that one of the things about that original release, apart from the sheer quality of the recorded performances, was the artwork on the cover. It must be, like the cover for Britten’s recording of War Requiem, one of the most memorable examples of cover art.
SS I take no credit for that at all. Classics for Pleasure had the task of designing and marketing. It was Simon Foster whose job it was and, of course, Simon went on to form Virgin Classics and now is Avie. He was a very good buddy to me then – and still is. He came up with the design. I have to say we didn’t like it.
SS We didn’t understand it, and we wouldn’t normally release covers of that sort of design. But that’s by the by. The whole thing worked. It was a great success. We did our bit, which was to make what turned out to be a very good recording, and they certainly did their bit in selling it.
JQ So everyone was happy.
And when did you first issue recordings under the Gimell imprint?
SS Well, what happened was this. Here we were in late 1980 or early 1981, thinking: “Excellent. We’ve made it now. We’ve had a record at the top of the classical charts.” Peter and I started walking the streets, meeting all the major labels, saying: “Here we are; we’ve proved we’re good at what we can do. Now what can we do for you?” And I think we were genuinely surprised at the lack of enthusiasm there was out there. No one was interested.
JQ Perhaps that comes back to Peter’s earlier point that no one went to concerts consisting solely of Renaissance vocal music in those days?
SS Yes, I’m sure you’re right. I looked at it from a slightly different point of view, that I just loved the music and I thought that with that one disc we’d proved that there was interest. I suspect that the people who were running those large labels in those days looked at it and said: “There’s only the Allegri and Palestrina’s ‘Papae Marcelli’. And I don’t know what this strange piece by Mundy’s all about but there’s no scope; there’s nothing else to do.”
JQ So did you come to the conclusion then that you ought to go it alone?
SS Yes. Definitely.
JQ And you weren’t fazed by the fact that the market was dominated at that time by those huge corporate giants, such as Deutsche Grammophon and Decca? You just went ahead and did it?
SS Well we didn’t have much choice!
PP That’s right. We had no choice at all. If we wanted to make a record we were going to have to do it ourselves. It wasn’t ideal by any means. I remember in those days when we went to the Central European festivals like Lucerne. We were absolutely nowhere because we didn’t have a big record label behind us.
JQ And what was the first Gimell disc that actually came out under your imprint?
SS That was Palestrina’s Missa ‘Benedicta es’ [GIMSE 402] and a lot of things about that disc fascinate me because the design of it is pretty much what we still do today, with a lovely Michelangelo line drawing on it and the style of sleeve note has hardly changed in twenty-nine years. It started with some chant and then a motet by Josquin. It’s fascinating that the first piece of polyphony on Gimell was by Josquin, after what Josquin’s done for us over the years and how important we still feel him to be as a composer. So there were lots of things about it that just showed what was going to happen in the future and I feel we got it right quite early on.
JQ And even the choice of name Gimell has a particular resonance for the type of music that you do. Just remind us what a Gimell is.
PP The word Gimell comes from the Latin word ‘gimellus’, meaning ‘a twin’, and it’s a technical term. It’s a corrupt form of the word gimellus that you find in manuscripts of the Tudor school where the part is twinned. You have to understand that in those days the music wasn’t written in score; it was written in parts so you’d only see your part. If you were singing your part and you saw the word ‘gimell’ it had to be decided in rehearsal that some of you singing that part would have to look elsewhere on the page, or even pick up another book and find your part. So it was a signpost.
JQ I hadn’t appreciated the point about going and looking in another book but, of course, as you say, scores weren’t invented in those days
PP There was no score. You had a part book or you had a choir book, but still your line was on its own on the page and then you knew to look elsewhere for it.
SS Of course, the important thing is that those gimells are the good bits! That’s when things really take off. The fruity moments.
JQ Perhaps it’s particularly appropriate if we talk about gimells as good bits because that’s what your catalogue’s crammed with. Not long after you’d started, the compact disc arrived on the market in 1983 and one of your many distinctions is that you were the first company to place a first commercial order for the manufacture of CDs with a UK manufacturer in the very next year, 1984. Was that with Nimbus?
SS Yes, that was with Nimbus. I didn’t realise at the time that we were placing the first commercial order but somewhere we probably still have written acknowledgement of Order No. 2 from the Nimbus factory. Order number one was the BBC, who’d placed an order, I think, for 500 CDs of a programme. They’d realised that it was a much cheaper way to distribute their programmes to overseas broadcasters than sending out lots of tapes. So they placed Order No. 1 and we placed Order No. 2. With hindsight I find it fascinating, but at the time we weren’t aware of it. What I do remember quite clearly was Peter and I used to get together and edit tapes in a rather derelict cottage down in Dorset and we were sitting on the bridge over the stream and I remember saying: “We really should start releasing compact discs”; and Peter saying: “There can’t be any future in that” because everything was then about black discs. And so we talked about it some more - and some more - and decided we should do that. And from a business point of view – forget anything to do with the artistic side of things - that was absolutely crucial to our success – that and the fact that that format came along at that time. It was great for us because the early digital sound was not good but it was still a lot better than the crackles and pops and the ‘wow’ that you got – and still get – on black discs. And for us, with our type of music, that’s critical. For pop music and symphonic music perhaps less so, but the crackle and the pop and especially the ‘wow’, that changing pitch, was quite detrimental to our type of music.
JQ So the CD was a godsend really
SS Well don’t forget that the CD was a godsend for most of today’s independent labels. I mentioned before you had Chandos and Hyperion all starting around the same time that we did. It’s no coincidence that we’ve remained successful whereas before we’d all simply given up because we couldn’t make it work and the CD came along and suddenly there was some potential there which hadn’t been there beforehand. And also remember we were talking about the big record companies in 1980 and 1981 when Peter and I were trying to get a deal with a big label. They were not having a good time. It was as difficult being a major record label in 1980/81 as it is today or as it was ten years ago when the CD boom started to end.
JQ One forgets that.
SS Absolutely. I mean, the business has always gone through troughs. You have a boom period and then it sinks. The stereo black disc had been around for quite a long time and it wasn’t a buoyant market at all. So that’s another reason why they may not have been so interested in something as esoteric as they would have thought we were at the time.
JQ That’s an interesting thought. And then a few years later you achieved another notable first, Peter, in 1987 when you became the first independent label to win Gramophone Magazine’s Recording of the Year award. Which disc won you that accolade?
PP That was our first Josquin Mass disc [CDGIM 009]. It had two Masses on it and it seemed to us at the time that it was no better or worse than some of the other discs we were making in the mid ‘80s, all in here [at Merton College]. But it really caught the attention of the reviewers, and especially David Fallowes in The Gramophone. (His Josquin book’s just come out. A big book; his life’s work.) So we were dealing with people who really knew what they were talking about, not record company executives but people who, in the case of this reviewer, said it was quite remarkable, that he’d never heard anything like it. People like that were crucial because they were generalists, actually. And Gordon Reynolds, Michael Oliver, and Bob Layton, who’s still around, they knew about all sorts of music and could come to our repertoire, and with that sort of general application, say: “This is fantastic!”
JQ I think I’m right in saying that that Josquin disc is still the only recording in the Early Music category has won that Record of the Year award.
SS Yes, surprisingly after all these years.
JQ You’ve had lots of other awards over the years. Has any award has given you particular satisfaction?
PP Well, the four Early Music awards that Gramophone have given us are good to have. I also like having the foreign ones that we get, especially in France. We’ve had a few in Italy and Germany.
SS But actually nothing beats getting [Gramophone] Record of the Year, remembering that before that we hadn’t won an award anywhere so to suddenly get that…
JQ It was a quantum leap, wasn’t it, in recognition terms?
PP It was. It turned us into a serious proposition.
SS If we get any other award in our lifetime that beats that for excitement, well….. I really look forward to it!
JQ You’ve now got fifty original recordings in the Gimell catalogue, plus compilations from the back catalogue. How have you gone about selecting the music to record?
PP I’ve made a conscious decision not to focus in on one thing. You might say the Renaissance repertoire is One Thing but I wouldn’t say that. People sometimes ask how can you restrict yourself to one narrow band of music and I say it’s nearly two hundred years, European-wide; it’s quite a lot of music and it’s also quite diverse. And I wanted to dot around. I wanted to do Portuguese, which we did, and we’re still recording. We’ve done some Mexican now. I really have a collector’s instinct to go to all these different traditions. We even did Russian music. Sometimes I choose a record because we’ve been doing the music in concert and we haven’t done that composer. I rather enjoy putting a new composer forward to the public, like Gombert was, I think, and White and Cardoso from Portugal and so on. And I’ve got a new one up my sleeve for next year: Jean Mouton.
JQ The one piece of his that I know is that wonderful Nesciens Mater.
PP That’s it. That’s the man. But having said all that, we have decided it’s a small project but we’re going to do all of Josquin’s Masses and we’re now about two-thirds of the way through. And it was beautifully set up as a project by that Gramophone award in ’87. So when we finish, if we finish with a Josquin Mass disc it will have spanned, basically, our career.
JQ That’s a very satisfying symmetry.
PP Yes. Well, I hope it works like that.
JQ Are there any new pieces – I mean new Renaissance pieces - that you still have a particularly burning desire to record?
PP Many. The list is endless. Oh yes! There are whole composers I’ve been meaning to do, many of them Flemish. We’ve recorded a lot of English music but there’s a lot more to do – there’s a lot of Sheppard to do, for example. The Sheppard ‘Cantate’ Mass would be beautiful.
JQ In the 1990s, Steve, if I remember rightly, Gimell briefly became part of what was then the Phillips label...
SS Well, Polygram Classics as it was.
JQ They changed the name so often.
SS That’s part of the story, in fact.
JQ But you didn’t stay with them all that long and seeing what’s happened in recent years to what were once the major international labels you must be relieved to be independent once more?
SS Well, we’d be dead if we were still part of that organisation. The proposition that was put to us was strong. It was Polygram Classics. They had three labels: Deutsche Grammophon, Decca and Phillips. And essentially Deutsche Grammophon had their own early music label, Archiv; Decca had l’Oiseau Lyre and the people at Phillips in Holland were hankering after having their own early music imprint for many years. I think they first came to see me in 1992, maybe even 1991, and at that point we just rejected their advances and thought ‘this is a load of nonsense’. Over the years we mellowed and we were quite taken with the idea that Gimell could become as strongly marketed as, say, the Archiv label was in Deutsche Grammophon. There were certainly things that attracted us to it but unfortunately the timing proved to be completely wrong.
The proposition was that Gimell would become the early music label for Phillips. But what Phillips didn’t know at the time, but I suspect that the people higher up in the organisation did, was that Phillips wasn’t going to survive for more than another year or two anyway. So that when we joined to boost the Phillips stable, almost immediately after we joined the organisation Phillips was being wound down. So it was a hellish time and we really did have to get out. And, more importantly, because of all the stuff that was going on, and all this constant reorganisation, - every month something changed – you had to spend your time on that reorganisation issue rather than what we wanted to do, which was making records and sell them. We carried on making the records but they were not selling them – that was the critical thing. They proved to be completely inept at the task of selling what we do. And it was absolutely critical that we got out; that became clear within a couple of years.
JQ With hindsight, it seems so obvious now; you’re a niche label, aren’t you? And the big majors are not light on their feet.
SS It does sound obvious but on the other hand it was also feasible that with the right kind of organisation Gimell could expand into having other artists and could do for those artists what Archiv and Decca were doing for their artists and that, for both Peter and myself, was quite an exciting prospect. But I think as soon as we realised that that simply wasn’t going to happen – we realised that within months, if not weeks - then the whole thing was dead in the water. And we were nearly dead in the water too. Without sales, without a public profile it can be quite critical – and was! Personally I wish we’d never done it and I think we’d be in a stronger position now if we’d stayed independent all the way through, but we’ve recovered.
JQ You’ve lived to fight another day.
PP It was touch and go for a while.
JQ And you’re masters of your own destiny again. Coming back to repertoire, The Tallis Scholars’ repertoire on disc is almost exclusively Renaissance, although I do recall a very early disc, from 1984, I think, which was devoted to music by Sir John Tavener [CDGIM005 – now deleted], which may have been the first Tallis Scholars disc I ever bought. You do perform some contemporary music in concert, albeit selectively. Do you have any thoughts about expanding this side of the group’s activities on disc in the future?
PP. No. I personally don’t. Another part of the very recent story is that I’ve started a choral foundation here [at Merton College] and there would be scope with that to do quite different repertoire and modern music might be it.
JQ One or two of the recordings you’ve issued have been taken from live concerts (Live in Oxford [CIGIM 998] and ‘Live in Rome’ [CIGIM 994]) but generally you record under studio conditions. Might you do more live recordings in the future?
PP Well, we haven’t planned it and I personally don’t think that ‘live’ live – like BBC radio live – produces very satisfactory records. The public don’t always notice this, because they’re not attuned to it, but a concert is not a recording.
JQ No. On the one hand you can have the ‘electricity’ but on the other hand you can have the slips.
PP Yes. Exactly.
JQ And in your sort of repertoire, and given the standards you’ve set over the years it’s got to be just so, hasn’t it?
PP Yes, it has. And when people come up to me after a concert and say: “That was fantastic; it was just like it is on the records”, I thank them very much, of course; they’ve obviously had a great time. But it’s not just the same as it is on the record. You gain and you lose when you make a record.
JQ And yet, when we talk about the ensemble’s recordings and talk about perfection, we’re not meaning sterile and bland. In fact, if one listens, say, to your recording of the Victoria Requiem you get all the passion there as well.
PP Good. That’s right. You get a different version in a concert, though.
SS Of course, when you’re sitting listening to a disc one important element is missing – the visual element. If you take that away you need something else to put that level back in. So people do need more on a recording. I believe we’re in the business of making the equivalent of feature films. We’re a Hollywood-style operation. We’re not a radio broadcaster who’s going out to capture what happens in real time at any one place at any one time. What we’re after is putting together something that is, I think, better than that.
JQ So you’re perhaps creating documents rather than actualité? Or is that too simplistic?
SS I think it’s a craft or maybe even it’s a work of art. I’m not sticking a microphone up in front of performers and saying: “Sing this once and we’ll have a record”. I’m working with them to make what you call a document, it’s something that’s exciting and that puts it across purely on the audio level because we haven’t got the pictures – you haven’t got the tension, for example. If you’re sitting there watching performers on the stage other things come in. It can make a concert much more exciting. You do get it occasionally. I remember once listening to the Tallis Scholars in Sydney. They were doing Spem in alium and I was sitting in my kitchen at home, listening to it on the laptop, absolutely wrapped up in it, but because I could hear that it wasn’t going well. I knew it was nearly there; it had nearly fallen off the edge of the cliff and not knowing if it was going to be all right added to the whole excitement of listening to it. With a CD you don’t get that because you know it’s going to be all right. So that element’s not part of the equation; you need other things to add to it.
So I go back to my point; the effort that we put in is the effort you’d expect a top film director to make. It’s important for both of us that we treat it that way. I’m not saying that we always get it absolutely right but the fact remains that we’ve never deleted any of our Renaissance recordings and some of the early ones still sell exceptionally well. I don’t think that would have happened if we’d just turned up at a concert, stuck up a microphone and said: “This is what this group does in real time.”
JQ That’s very interesting. Now the thirtieth anniversary of the label coincides with your fiftieth release. Is that a coincidence?
PP A complete coincidence. In fact we’ve just had exactly the same numbers coincidence the other day. We’ve just done our fiftieth tour to North America, which includes Mexico and Canada but mainly the States, obviously. And on that tour we gave our four hundredth concert in North America. So we had a double whammy there, made for us.
SS We’ve been doing this for so long now that these things are going to happen more often.
JQ And what other celebratory releases are planned in this thirtieth year of Gimell, Steve?
SS At the moment I’m working very hard putting together some retrospective boxed sets. The working title is “Best of the Tallis Scholars” but I’d like to find something better than that. That’ll be three boxed sets, one for each decade; so there’ll be one for the 1980’s, one for the 1990’s and then it falls apart because there’s also one for the “noughties” and we definitely need something better than the “noughties”. I’m working on that at the moment, choosing the repertoire.
JQ That must be a difficult job – or is it?
SS It’s interesting. It’s not so much difficult. Some things have to go on simply because they’re a famous part of the story, such as the first Allegri. And, interestingly, the 1980s set will start with our first recording of the Allegri and the “noughties” set will finish with our most recent recording of it. And that’s quite interesting in itself, just in terms of the contrast between the way we did it then and the way we do it now. So some things have to go in because they’re an important part of the story. And other things go in because they’re my favourites, actually. But then, of course, you can’t just throw it all in the pot. It’s got to work as a sequence. Putting together four CDs of music, which I’m having to do for each one of these decades, and making sure it flows. Basically, there’s five hours of music for each decade. I’m having to leave out some pretty important things but just getting it to work as a five-hour experience in music is quite tricky.
JQ Rather you than me!
SS I enjoy it but it’s quite a challenge. That will be the main focus for our anniversary later on in the year. One set will come out in September, one in October and one in November. That’ll really wrap up the thirtieth anniversary for us. We’ve got to start looking forward instead of back and by the time we’ve had this story going on for about six months we’ll probably be sick of it.
JQ Well, talking of looking forward brings me neatly to a question I wanted to ask you. Gimell has been such a pioneer, not just in repertoire but also technologically. You now offer downloads through your own website and now I think you’re the first label to sell 5.1 Surround Sound downloads in the FLAC format (see March 2010 Download Roundup) . Do you see downloading as the clear way forward or a medium that’s more likely to complement and sit side by side with CD rather than to replace it?
SS Definitely complement. What I would say is that I think the CD will prove to be the last physical carrier of any significance. I can’t see that anything else is going to come along that’s going to be a package that you buy in a shop. The CD will carry on for as long as people want to go to shops to buy them but the download market - or rather listening to music as files, a computer-based model, however it works - that will be how it is. Whether there’ll be lots of download stores on the web or whether in the end you’ll just buy it from your telephone company, I just don’t know; the jury’s out on all of that.
JQ I think CD’s safe as long as there are people like me who are hopeless with technology.
SS Well, we’re into selling music. We’re not into selling technology.
JQ But one’s got to be comfortable with the carrier, I think.
SS Yes, we want people to buy our recordings and we’ll put those on any platform that we can afford to put them on. Listening to music on a computer-based platform is what’s going to be happening in fifty years time or it’ll be even more refined than that but I am convinced that the physical product was CD and it’s not likely to turn into anything else.
JQ In a minute we’re going to look at the chapel, which has so many resonances with The Tallis Scholars. But before we do that, Peter, just explain to us how the Merton connection came about and also I think people will be interested to hear something about your new role here at the College.
PP The first time we sang in here was 1974. All we did was sing the Tallis hymn tune and then the University Orchestra played the ‘Tallis’ Fantasia of Vaughan Williams. The guy who was conducting, Chris Waltham, knew that I was keen on Tallis and that I had a little band of singers already together and we came and stood on the organ loft which in those days was very new. That was my introduction to Merton College Chapel.
We realised what a fantastic sound there is in there; everyone knew this anyway that knew the acoustics round Oxford. And we gave concerts in here repeatedly; Steve came in ’76 to record us; we made our first disc in ’77 – not here, actually – but we kept coming back and eventually we were here throughout the ‘80s. In the ‘90s we went and recorded largely in a church at Salle in Norfolk, which was supposed to be quieter than the centre of a big city like Oxford – that was the rationale.
SS The issue was that we couldn’t get in to Merton Chapel as often as we needed to when Gimell’s success started.
PP But to cut a long story very short, we couldn’t really afford what was a very elaborate base, going up with all these people to Salle and putting them up. So we came back here in 2005. And at this point the authorities now in place in the College took an interest in what we were doing and eventually I said to the Warden “Why is there no proper choir here? Why has there never been? It’s the oldest chapel.”
JQ There’s never been a choir here?
PP Never. There’s never been a proper choir here. They never paid out to set up a choir school, basically. It was a parish church for a long time in the nineteenth century and when we came back here in 2005 they had just a pick-up undergraduate choir. And they eventually decided to set up a choral foundation here with anything up to 24 choral scholars. I have an assistant; there are two organ scholars. And they raised £2 million for this and it was done very quickly. So this is our second full year and there’s evensong twice a week and sometimes three times a week. So it’s really setting itself up. It’s an undergraduate choir, with women, so it’s a sort of prototype that could benefit The Tallis Scholars in the sense that sopranos and altos could come out of this and go on.
SS And tenors and basses.
JQ So that could be a permanent conveyor belt of talent, which would be wonderful.
PP Yes. And also they sing very well. We’re beginning to think in terms of recordings and broadcasts.
JQ Several of the Oxbridge colleges with mixed choirs are making recordings these days and I love the sound that some of them make. It’s very fresh and pure. The male voices aren’t too heavy but have enough foundation to them and having the female sopranos on the top line can often produce a wonderful sound.
SS Well, you’re describing there the sound of The Clerkes of Oxenford that attracted Peter so long ago and, indeed, the early sound of The Tallis Scholars. It’s that freshness and lightness of sound.
JQ So it’s coming round full circle?
PP Yes, it’s a lovely story for me personally because I started here and I’m now running the show here. I could say that about St. John’s but this is a much finer chapel in every way.
JQ How much do you divide your time between The Tallis Scholars and Merton?
PP Well, I do everything The Tallis Scholars does, obviously, and that hasn’t diminished, so I’m just rushing around more.
Peter and Steve then took me across to the Merton College Chapel, the venue for so many Gimell recordings. This was where the Tallis Scholars first performed in concert in 1974 and where the Gimell story began with a recording made on 22 and 23 March 1980. The programme for that recording included Palestrina’s Missa ‘Papae Marcelli’, William Mundy’s Vox Patris Caelestis and, of course, Allegri’s celebrated ‘Miserere’ (GIMSE 401 – see review).
Parts of the chapel date back to the last years of the thirteenth century but most of the structure was erected in the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. A seventeenth century refurbishment involved Sir Christopher Wren and there were further significant internal alterations in the nineteenth century.
They pointed out to me that the chapel was actually intended to be a much more substantial church. The bell tower at what is now the West end was planned as a central tower with a nave stretching westwards, though this was never built and the way in which the building is thus formed contributes to the unique acoustics. By chance, a student choir, the Schola Cantorum, was just beginning a rehearsal as we arrived, with the singers positioned on the altar steps. So while they sang music by Victoria we had a practical demonstration of the chapel’s acoustics as we talked.
I had wondered if some of the music that The Tallis Scholars have recorded in the chapel might have been sung there around the time that the music was composed. But Peter explained that this would not have been the case. Unlike several Oxbridge colleges, Merton College was not a religious foundation and he reminded me that it’s only in the last couple of years, with the establishment of the new choral foundation, that the college has had a regular chapel choir.
SS We’re standing now in the chapel and where you can see those singers standing is where we would place the choir for recording. When I came in here in ’76 to record The Tallis Scholars for the first time in a concert the choir were rehearsing in exactly that position I chose a spot for my microphone – it was just a simple stereo microphone - which was just the other side of the lectern as you see it there [in the centre of the chapel, between the choir stalls, perhaps 10 feet back from the altar steps] and that’s what we do today; exactly the same.
JQ How did you arrange the disposition of the singers for the  Allegri recording?
SS There’s two choirs for the Allegri: the solo group and the main choir. The main choir was there, where you can see those singers now. The trick with the Allegri was that the distant choir was actually not in line of sight of the microphone. They were actually standing here, round in this [south] side transept. So there was no direct sound – and no vision, which doesn’t really matter. They can do it their own way. So basically the sound that arrived at the microphone in that recording was not direct at all.
JQ So that’s how you achieved that magical distancing effect?
PP Yes. What’s important is that the building can convey the sound so clearly, round the corner and all the way up the chancel to the microphone.
JQ And you recorded Spem in Alium in here, didn’t you, in 1985? [CDGIM 203] That recording has always seemed to me to be not only successful in conveying the sheer excitement of the piece but also outstandingly clear in the way that the various choirs can be heard. Did you set out the singers in physically separate groups?
SS A lot of thought went into that because it was clear that no one had really made a recording of Spem for stereo before. There was no understanding of the different choirs, where each choir comes in and how the music moves from one choir to another. So we definitely approached it from the point of view that we were making a stereo recording, where we wanted to show that, in effect, there were eight choirs singing. So they were in the normal position, as you see those people there now, but we had to put some staging in and put them into rows – forty people wouldn’t fit into the width. But the important point was that within the stereo you had the first choir on the left, the eighth choir was on the right and there was a demarcation between each of the choirs. It was very tricky because there’s not much width to play with. But it worked. There are other ways you could have laid it out but the reason we did it that way is because the whole Gimell sound is about using a stereo microphone to make a stereo recording. There’s just one microphone that faces left and one microphone faces right. We use the best microphones we can get and put them in exactly the right place so that the sound is as good as possible.
JQ What makes the acoustic in here so special?
PP Well, it’s quite reverberant, as you can hear. The sound carries beautifully in the building but at the same time it’s quite clear. So it’s clear and resonant, which is ideal, because it gives us a halo of sound but we can hear each other very clearly and, as we’ve discussed with the Allegri, the sound travels in the building very effectively and pleasingly.
JQ And because you’re recording in an acoustic with which you’re so familiar you know how to make the acoustic work for you, I assume?
PP It’s not rocket science. Anybody would adapt to a wonderful sound like this very quickly if they’ve got ears for it. But I often say to the undergraduates “let the building ring with your sound”. It will ring if you sing into it and encourage it. And that’s helpful because when they do then the building starts to resonate in a way that other buildings wouldn’t
JQ How difficult is it to record here in what is, after all, a lively, working Oxford college? Do you record at night for example?
PP Yes. At night and out of term – in January, when it’s freezing! There’s no heating in here.
SS It’s a wonderful building to work in, but it’s not easy. We try to avoid term time. We generally work here in January, simply because that’s the quietest time. And if something big drives up Merton Street, we have to stop. Luckily, it doesn’t happen very often. But it is worth it. The clarity of sound that we get in here is…. Well, I don’t know a better way of doing it.
PP There’s no better building. The only snag is, if it’s too loud then the building sometimes can’t take it. You could have a bigger building - York Minster, for example – which has very reverberant sound but it’s huge; it’s vast. You can’t hear very well in that kind of place. But otherwise this is the best. I don’t know a better building anywhere. The Sistine Chapel was good but I wasn’t there long enough to discover how best to use it, really.
JQ Both of you are obviously still full of excitement and enthusiasm for Gimell after 30 years. What do you see as the greatest challenges and opportunities that Gimell – and The Tallis Scholars - are likely to face in the next few years?
PP Well, musically speaking, it’s repertoire really. And keeping up the standard, which I think has gone up. We’ve kept up the standards and chosen interesting new music to do. But as I said earlier, there’s no end to it. There are even whole composers I still want to do. But even if you said that for the rest of my life all I can record is Palestrina I’d be perfectly happy with that because there’s so much more to do.
SS I don’t think there are any real technical challenges. The business challenge is a clear one; it’s piracy. If anything’s going to kill us off it’s simply that we have no customers. So I would say to all your readers: “Please don’t copy your friend’s CDs: go out and buy them.” Because this, for us, is a huge challenge now; greater, perhaps than at any time in the thirty years that we’ve survived so far. This is not unique to Gimell. I think that we have a unique following that puts us in a stronger position than many other labels but piracy is a great concern – and I don’t just mean Internet piracy. In the old days people would go round to listen to a friend’s CD and then go and buy one for themselves. Now they can just walk out with a copy. And there is nothing that we, Gimell, can do about that. There are industry issues and there are political issue.
JQ So you rely on the good faith of the public.
SS Yes. I hope that people understand that we’d like to pay our singers a decent wage for turning up to sing on sessions. You can’t quite do that these days and that’s because of all these other issues that are coming in. So that’s an important point. For Gimell otherwise, we only have one artist; they’d better stay as good as they are at the moment or else we’re done for!
JQ Well, that’s your department, Peter.
SS The Tallis Scholars have looked after Gimell very well for thirty years so I don’t think there’s an issue there.
PP We’ve got some fantastic new singers coming along, so that’s not a problem. And they know more about it now because of all these discs that have been out for thirty years.
SS That’s a very important point. Singers now know what we expect of them because they’ve grown up listening to the sound
PP Some of them that I now employ were not born when we started out
JQ That’s a sobering thought.
SS It makes me feel very old!
JQ Well, moving on from that sobering thought, as we sit here outside Merton College Chapel in the spring sunshine let me ask both of you one last question. If you were transported right now to the mythical Desert Island, which one Gimell recording would each of you take with you?
SS I think mine would have to be Clemens non Papa [CDGIM 013]. I don’t know why but I listen to that disc more than any other, purely for the enjoyment of listening to it. It’s wonderful music.
JQ And Peter, it’s an invidious thing to ask you, when you’ve conducted them all but let me put you on the spot.
PP Well I think I would always answer that by saying I would take the last one that we’ve made because I believe in the quality of these things and I think the quality is increasing. So it’s this Victoria disc [CDGIM 043]. I know I edited it and it goes to bed and I stop listening to it while it goes through the final production processes. Now I want to hear it again and I’m told by the people I’ve given it to that it is absolutely top class. So I’m ready to listen to it a lot again.
JQ I can second that. It’s wonderful. So it’s Clemens non Papa and Victoria on the mythical Desert Island. Peter Phillips and Steve Smith, thank you very much for your time today. I’m sure all the admirers of The Tallis Scholars around the world will join me in congratulating you on 30 years of Gimell Records and in looking forward to many more recordings in the coming years.
© John Quinn
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