Saturday, 24 May 2014

Carolyn Gibley prepares to perform Handel's "Great Suites"

Cellist Tatty Theo interviews harpsichordist Carolyn Gibley about her preparations for forthcoming performances of Handel’s “Great Suites”.

TT: Tell me a little about the history of these pieces.
CG: There are 8 suites, which Handel prepared for publication in 1720, although we rather get the idea that his hand was forced. He wrote in the preface “I have been obliged to publish some of the following lessons because surreptitious and incorrect copies of them have got abroad. I have added several new ones to make the work more usefull. . .” Handel didn’t call them ‘Great’; this appellation is a later addition, referring as much to the scale of the pieces, as well as their musical quality!

TT: Why have you chosen the challenge of these pieces at this particular moment?
CG: About a year ago, following recent CD releases there was a lot of press coverage and reviews of the BSB. These all referenced the fact that the Band is known as a Handel specialist, and whilst I knew most of the Suites to play through, I’d only ever performed three of them, and I’d never tackled all 8 collectively, systematically and thoroughly. I was interested and inspired to do this, as I wanted to fill a gap in my own knowledge as well as the BSB’s representation of my instrument.

TT: So, you’ve been living with these pieces for a year now?
CG: Yes, although the notes were mastered within the first few months, I gave myself a year as I wanted enough time to live with the music. The actual notes are just the basic requirement – after that it’s a question of getting to know the pieces intimately, so they take on their own individual characters. I haven’t spent a full year at the keyboard, as earlier this year I took a 5 week sabbatical in New Zealand, which is the longest I’ve ever been away from a keyboard. I was worried about it, but it was actually really beneficial. When I got back I found a lot of the problems I’d been worrying about had been forgotten, and in many ways the pieces had carried on developing in my mind. Perhaps I was free from the preconceptions and anxiety which can surround everyday practise and I was able to see the bigger picture.

Carolyn at Brook Street, Nelson, New Zealand. It’s nice to see the street signs in Brook Street blue!

TT: A year seems a decent chunk of time to get to know these pieces. Have your perceptions changed at all over this time?
CG: I’ve been surprised by how much I love playing some of the minor key Suites. I’ve always loved the A Major Suite and was looking forward to that, but not so much the pieces in more painful keys such as e and f# minor. But, I just love playing the e minor suite now – it’s so meaty, challenging and satisfying. I still love my original favourites, although I find I don’t spend as much time with them now.

TT: 8 Suites could sound a bit repetitive in programming terms. How are you approaching this?
CG: I’m splitting the suites between 2 concerts, with 4 suites in each. I’ve not programmed them in numerical order, as that would make for an odd progression of keys, as well as too much similar music (e.g. variations) in the same concert. It’s really tricky sorting the suites according to key as Handel didn’t balance them equally. There are 5 minor key suites, and only 3 major key ones.

TT: How does the choice of key affect how you programme the suites?
CG: Some keys are easier on the ear, others designed to be more challenging, and of course I’ll need to come up with a usable tuning temperament that takes all this into account. Handel knew very well that C# major (which is the dominant of f# minor) isn’t easy to listen to. There does need to be some degree of pain, but tricky keys like this are particularly hard on modern ears, more used to equal temperament. I’m currently researching which temperament will work best, as of course I can’t adjust this between each piece. However, I am lucky to have some freedom, in that I don’t have to worry about other players tuning to me!

TT: Are all the suites the same, set out in a similar way to the Bach keyboard partitas, with a string of recognisable dance movements?
CG: Not at all – I think Handel uses the term pretty loosely, as he varies the format of each suite, none being textbook or typical. Handel uses pretty much every available form for early 18th century keyboard music, from fugues, French Overture, unmeasured preludes and sonatas as well as dance movements.

TT: We’re pretty familiar with the concept of Handel re-heating his music, but how much of this repertoire will be easily recognisable?
CG: I’d say that music from at least 4 suites will be familiar. The g minor suite is used orchestrally, and the F Major suite is rather famous and typically Handelian. Both the E Major and the d minor suites with their variations are also well-known. Plus one of its movements is also an organ concerto. Perhaps the best-known music is the E Major suite which contains the famous Harmonious Blacksmith variations. I’ll be ending the concerts with this glorious Suite.

TT: Finally, what instrument will you be using?
CG: I’m lucky to have Alan Gotto so close by. He made my harpsichord, modelled on a French Donzelague, and I’ll most probably use that or Alan’s own Donzelague. The choice of a French instrument is not particularly authentic, but I love its rich and resonant bass and singing treble registers. I have played one of Handel’s harpsichords, an instrument made by William Smith c.1720, and now housed in Oxford’s Bate Collection. It was a wonderful and humbling experience. You could feel the indentations in the keys from his fingers, and it gave me a real insight into him as a player. I could sense the enormous strength and energy that he directed at the keyboard, not to mention the fact that he must have had large hands. Some of the stretches in the “Great Suites” are tricky, and these are big, uncompromising physical works, perhaps just like Handel himself. After all, he would have written them to play himself!

Carolyn Gibley performs Handel’s “Great Suites” at The Chapel, Park Lane, Norwich NR2 3EF, on Sunday 29 June and Sunday 13 July. Both concerts are 6.30-7.45pm.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Early Music Review

Lovely review from Alistair Harper in December's Early Music Review:

'What an enjoyable recording this is!... The Brook Street Band play with superb style and enthusiasm; they have appropriately varied the instrumentation of the individual sonatas, and their programme order makes perfect sense... prepare to be beguiled...'

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Baroque Music course for Hackney Music Development Trust

Spring Term Saturday Afternoon Baroque Course with The Brook Street Band
25th January, 1st and 8th February between 2pm and 5pm.
Haggerston School, E2
Grade 3+ players of orchestral instruments and recorders.
How Much?
£60 for all three sessions (£45 for Saturday Programme Students)

Come and work with the acclaimed Brook Street Band to play music by Handel, Vivaldi, Corelli and Bach. Learn to play in true 18th century style. Have fun with ornaments, light and bouncy articulation, and for string players, holding your bow in a baroque way, and what it feels like to play on gut strings.

Since its formation in 1995 by baroque cellist Tatty Theo, The Brook Street Band has rapidly established itself as one of the country’s foremost interpreter’s of Handel’s music. Named after the Mayfair street where George Frideric Handel lived, the band has released 6 highly acclaimed CDs and performs regularly at the Wigmore Hall and across the UK and Europe.

Contact or call 020 8882 8825 for more details

Thursday, 21 November 2013

5 star review

The Brook Street Band is delighted to receive a 5 star review in The Irish Times for its latest CD "Handel Trio Sonatas Op 2". Michael Dervan writes:
The Brook Street Band’s performances have a well-blended, soft-textured finish and, rhythmically, an easy grace.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Radio 3 In Tune - launch of new CD "Handel Trio Sonatas Op.2"

The Brook Street Band launched its latest CD Handel Trio Sonatas Opus 2 in style in the BBC Radio 3 In Tune studio. The Band appeared live on Wednesday 23rd October performing 2 pieces by Handel. Tatty chatted to Sean Rafferty, and The Band’s Dixit Dominus disc also got some airplay. All in all, a big Handelian chunk on a gloriously sunny Autumn afternoon.

(Images copywrite BBC)

It’s been a busy time also with The Band’s Getting a Handle on Handel education project, with the music and dance element of the project taking place with the year 5s at Rhodes Avenue Primary School, London.

The Band is shortly off to the Halesworth Arts Festival (26 October) taking Mr Handel with it.

Then, The Band travels to Turner Sims in Southampton on 3rd November for a sparking and dramatic Bach and Handel programme with soprano Nicki Kennedy.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Autumn Newsletter

Listen to the Band launch its latest CD live on Radio 3’s IN TUNE programme. 5.30pm on WEDNESDAY 23rd October

Traditionally, August is often a quieter time of year, with fewer concerts and Festivals, and this year the fantastic summer provided some much needed family time, rest and recuperation for the members of The Brook Street Band. The first half of the year saw the Band complete two recordings, which can be a pretty draining process. Plus, Rachel and her family celebrated the arrival of baby Noah in early May. In matters gardening-related, Carolyn, Farran and Rachel all have small-holdings and grow vast amounts of fruit and veg. Summer is also a good time to dream up future projects and programmes, and rehearse without the deadline of a concert, although the extreme temperatures made for some slippery fingerboards!

Tatty oversaw the artwork and booklet design for the Band’s newest CD Handel Opus 2 Trio Sonatas.

5 years ago, this would have meant sitting in front of a desk computer somewhere, but the proliferation of tablets and wifi meant that this task could be completed in the glorious Lake District, in fact mostly at Tarn Hows, one of Tatty’s favourite places. Sadly, there’s nothing to tie Handel to the place, but it is certainly an inspiring place to work.

The Opus 2 disc is out now on the AVIE label and here’s what they had to say about it:

‘The Brook Street Band has easily earned its reputation as “the smartest new baroque band around (The Times, London). Among today’s most notable Handel specialists, the all-girl group follow their ear-opening recording debut, the world-premiere chamber version of Handel’s ‘Oxford’ Water Music (AV 0028) which earned the ensemble an Editor’s Choice from Gramophone, and a sparkling rendition of the Op. 5 Trio Sonatas (AV 2068), with the composer’s other great set of Trio Sonatas, Op. 2. An utterly memorable collection of works that features Handel’s imaginative “re-heating” of his own popular tunes, the recording once again brings forth the Band’s sheer pleasure in sharing the composer’s wonderful music.’

Our other recording of the year, Dixit Dominus, was released in the summer to critical acclaim.

' absolutely superb performance here from the Brook Street Band and the Choir of Queen's College, Oxford. ...everything about this album represents British Baroque performance at its best.'
James Manheim,, July 2013, 5-star Rating

‘The playing of the Brook street Band is mouth-watering in its simple quality of musicianship, a standard that is upheal throughout the disc. A disc of unusually high calibre.’
Early Music Review

See more at:

Next Wigmore Hall concert

Sunday 20th July 2014 will see the Band return to Wigmore Hall, this time with trumpeter Simon Desbruslais and soprano Nicki Kennedy for a thrilling and virtuosic programme.
‘Triumph over Tragedy’ explores depths of emotion, from despair and adversity through to pure celebratory joy, featuring Handel’s La Lucrezia, Trio sonata g minor Op.2. No.6 and ‘Let the Bright Seraphim’. Also on the programme is Bach’s Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen, Trio sonata d minor and Telemann’s Trumpet concerto D Major.

In the pipeline for 2014 onwards

The Brook Street Band has a new project under development with a major London venue, choir and conductor. This will see the Band explore many of Handel’s wonderful oratorios over the coming years, together with notable soloists. This is a subject close to Tatty’s heart; some of you might know that her two sons are named after Handel oratorios, and it was in fact hearing a performance of Solomon in 1985 that is responsible for Tatty’s passion for all things Handelian.


Getting a Handle on Handel

June saw the final part of the pilot phase of the Band’s education project Getting a Handle on Handel. Farran and Tatty returned to Bealings and Rhodes Avenue schools, ably assisted by Nicki Kennedy (soprano).This time the focus was Handel’s London, contrasting the grim and dirty London street life with the beauty and escapism of the London pleasure gardens. The children played their instruments in chamber groups, sang Handel songs and created a whole drama with mime, acrobatics, poetry and music, contrasting the two different environments.
We are delighted to report a successful Arts Council application, with an award for the next year of the project. In addition we have now secured grants from 3 more charitable trusts along with money from the schools themselves. This means we have enough money to fund Year 1 and will be returning to both schools this term. Next summer will see the children visiting the Handel House Museum and performing at Wigmore Hall. We will shortly start raising the money needed for the final year of the project.

If you would like to know more about this project or even consider participating please email Farran at

Selected diary dates:

21-23rd October
Rhodes Avenue Primary School, London

23rd October
BBC Radio 3 In Tune

26th October
Halesworth Festival - Louis de Bernières' Mr Handel

3rd November
Turner Sims Concert Hall, Southampton

18-19th November
Bealings Primary School, Suffolk

22nd December
The Chapel, Norwich

19th June tbc
Israel in Egypt, St John’s Smith Square

20th July
Wigmore Hall

Programme and booking information available at

Friday, 29 March 2013

Some thoughts on the recording process:

Rachel: The whole concept of recording is artificial; every little slip is a problem, which you don’t notice in a concert, where it’s lived in the moment and it’s all about the atmosphere. With a CD you feel you have to listen to a perfect product. If you hear a mistake, you know it’s always going to be there. We try to get it perfect, but it’s exhausting with recordings because you’re trying to play a concert for 6 or 7 hours in a day.

Simon: I suggest the whole art to recording is to use the situation to take risks that you wouldn’t be able to take in a concert. You have the opportunity to make things more expressive or extreme because in a concert you sometimes have to select a safe route through the music.

Rachel: I think it’s knowing the balance, and in the recording you can actually afford to make mistakes. In a concert you are looking for that risk and being on the edge.

Simon: I'd have thought you wouldn't wish to start experimenting while you are on stage?

Farran: Well, sometimes we do.

Rachel: We know each other so well, so we can actually do that, but only because we’ve known each other for years.

Farran: I suppose we are trying to make the recording as close to a live performance as we can get.

Rachel: But it will never have an audience sitting there. In a concert they electrify the air, we pick that up. The best concerts are when audiences (although they don’t realise it) are actually conversing with us and giving us loads of electricity that we give back to them.

Simon: So in a recording you have to use the microphone as a portal to a future audience, probably a much bigger audience.

Rachel: It’s not the same as having real live bodies there.

Simon: That’s the challenge. You have to connect to your future audience.

Farran: You do have the advantage of care and intensity that can be difficult to achieve in live performance because everything is gone so quickly. I think once we’ve recorded something, we’ve learnt it in a different way than we might have previously. When we go back on stage we perform it differently.

Rachel: The same is true the other way round. If we are to record a piece we haven’t performed before, I find you notice it, unless you are really, really careful with bringing it alive. Talking about the atmosphere of recording is one thing. Then you get down to the nitty gritty – “oh that note was not in tune”- and you’re playing take after take after take. To keep this tension and energy going is really hard. In the end you are like – “oh let’s just get a safe one” That’s almost the end, and then after that you are free!

Farran: That’s where Simon comes in. You (Simon) know how to judge that, how to lead us to that point. Rather than just stopping at that ‘safe’ moment, you take us beyond it. You also know how many full takes we have in us, as we want to record as much as possible in full takes. We want it to be a complete as possible.

Rachel: There are so many other factors that come in that I find really fascinating, for example, how we stand in relative to the microphones means a particular sound comes out in a specific direction. Human ears on the sides of heads are so different. A microphone is not even the right shape, and is not picked up by neurones.

Simon: In some ways ears are similar to microphones, but microphones don’t have brains.

Farran: There’s no decoding system.

Simon: Exactly. That’s where we have to help the listener. Give them multiple ears, because in real life the brain is able to select what it hears. So for example much of the indirect sound from the back of the hall gets filtered out. Your brain can't do that listening back to a recording.

Rachel: I once did a recording where they had just one set of microphones on a plastic head, an outdated fashion. The result was good on headphones, but you rarely hear a recording on that way; you might listen to it in the car, or in your front room (which is very dry) so what happens to all the acoustics behind it? Each sound system has a different range. I’m fascinated by the harmonic range. A note is not just one note, it is a set of vibrations, and makes a particular sound-colour because of the amount of harmonics that exist above it. A trombone sounds really pure as it has fewer upper harmonics than say a violin. The fact is that each note has a tower of stuff above it. Simon’s job is to make sure the right ones come out across all the ranges and that they gel convincingly.

Simon: It’s true that recordings sound different on different sound systems. But it‘s not just that, it’s also a response to the acoustic they are in. Some systems sound drier that others, so we have to make sure that people have the acoustic atmosphere around the music, so it has somewhere to go, but also the detail in order to connect to the performance.

Rachel: Which is also why you have microphones in the rest of the room; it’s not simply that we have a close microphone for each instrument. We have individual mics, say a foot away, depending on the room, then also some much further back in the room, - in this church standing at about 4 metres high. They pick up a lot of other things.

Farran: We also have to record the silence, as it is with us standing in it at that particular time, as the music exists only as part of that acoustic. Silence is not a blank.

Simon: Yes, that’s right. You need space for the music to project into. Not just acoustically, music needs space as the performance needs space to project into.

Rachel: Which is why we are in a church, not a studio. A lot of pop musicians do work in studios, but they work very differently, they work for months on end tweaking, adding, layering, one thing at a time.

Farran: They have cans [headphones] on, so they listen to themselves through the ears of the microphones. We are listening to ourselves in this building, we can’t possibly listen to what the microphone is hearing, as we’ve got to react to an acoustic. If we don’t have an acoustic we don’t have the feedback we are used to.

Rachel: Which is why the space is so important. Each room has its own atmosphere. People notice when they walk into a building like this, a feeling of “ahhh”. This is to do with the wood, the stone, the high ceiling and space above you, the light, the pews, the sounds. That is what we are using in our sound, we play with this acoustic. Sometimes there is too much, or too little and you have to compensate. What do you call acoustics? It’s like feedback from the room. For us, we crudely mean echo.

Simon: For the listener it’s the space in which the music has to travel. When I’m balancing that up, what I’m looking for is allowing the listener to home in on the one hand, without it seeming completely dry, and step away into the corner of the room on the other hand, such that it is not a complete wash. I try to get a recorded balance that mimics what our own selective hearing system might do in the live space.

Rachel: Like the best seat in a concert hall, it’s a very complicated subject this! There are so many things to consider.

Farran: We’re using this church for the 6th time, as it’s quiet and background noise can be a big problem when recording. It’s also isolated and away from our everyday lives. So for all of us it provides head space, it’s good to be cut off from the outside world.

Simon: Rather than step straight off the underground and have to play...

Farran: We’re not worrying about taking the lunch break at exactly 1 o’clock, we run to a schedule but we basically carry on until it is done every evening. We’re not trying to catch a train. It’s a real luxury, but very necessary for this kind of work.

Rachel: We have a deadline; Sunday, it has to be ready, and the pressure builds if we get behind, so we try to get a little ahead each day, so as to avoid the gun to the head feeling. We work on a number of pieces per day, rather than a set amount of time per day.

Farran: This means that concentration is not interrupted. I think this is crucial in a recording situation - you get so close to something, you have to stick with it. You can’t just pick it up an hour later and expect it to be the same – it doesn’t work. Just as one performance will not be like another. If you want the product to be as close to live performance as possible, where one phrase in the music is a consequence of the previous one, you have to record it in one sitting.

Rachel: With that to finish, how about we get back to work!