Freedom of Spirit - The Passion of Improvisation
At the outset it is worth noting that many reviewers have a problem with improvisation CDs, and this particular one brings with it added complications - multiple venues and live audiences. But I will nail my colours to the flagpole and admit that I am a fan of improvisation and improvisation CDs. This one I like very much even though it does come with baggage.
The first improvisation is a set of variations on the French folk tune Alouette, gentile Alouette at the Eglise St Vincent, Roquevaire, Provence-Alpes Côte d’Azur, France. Here is a large four-manual instrument which has 10% of its pipework and the console (updated) from Cochereau’s house organ in Nice, 20% from the church’s former instrument and 70% new from builder Daniel Birouste. The occasion was to mark the 25th anniversary of the death of Pierre Cochereau. This is a major improvisation, more than able to fill its 14 minutes and seven sets of variations. The building and organ are superb, and the recording clear and weighty.
Four improvisations follow from Luther College, Decorah, Iowa, each in the style of a composer, Bach, Mendelssohn, Ravel and Briggs. Each demonstrates the art of the improviser; in particular the Mendelssohn has some exquisite moments in it and the Ravel, a broad canvas at over 10 minutes, is an improviser’s tour de force. Recording quality here is again very good. An improvisation on My Old Kentucky Home from Daneville Presbyterian Church, Kentucky is beautifully executed in a modern style on a classically designed organ, amusing and well recorded too.
The impressive improvisation Hommage à Jean Langlais was performed in the Basilica Santa Maggiore, Bergamo, Italy on its 3-manual 1948 Ruffati. The recording is a little too focussed on the Grand Organo at the expense of the building and Pedale and has a distinct graininess to it. Three liturgical improvisations from St Sulpice in Paris are important in that they show the use of improvisation in context. These recordings are therefore recorded at a real service and so suffer a little from general noise and movement, but are a key item to have included on a CD of this nature; after all improvisation lives and dies by its inspiration which can depend on a building, organ or audience reaction. The recording quality, while not bad, is not ideal. The disc concludes with a tremendous improvisation on the Lourdes Hymn from St Sernin Toulouse’s 1888 Cavaillé-Coll, which sounds marvellous.
In the booklet there is an interesting essay from David Briggs on his background to improvisation and how simple it is to improvise like he does - for him anyway! Also there is a specification and photograph(s) of each organ, a personal note about each venue/occasion and all of the relevant dates. It is good to see comprehensive and informative booklets like Chestnut is producing - others, particularly majors, take note of the organ audience and its particular requirements.
Now to the baggage. Three words; recording, applause, audience. Not all of these improvisations were recorded in front of an audience, so applause is not a great issue, although it is intrusive a couple of times. Mostly the audiences are well behaved, hardly a murmur or cough (except for the St Sulpice congregation who largely go for God and not the organ), and generally not an issue.
The recordings do vary in quality, and the juxtaposition of St Sernin’s late-night carefully-mic’d recording next to the live Sortie from St Sulpice really shows the difference. Also I have a bit of a problem with constant fading or bumping from ambience to digital silence and fast fades at the end of tracks. More attention should be paid here to these production issues which are actually quite unsettling. (This is not pointed just at Chestnut either, many labels bring poor production values to their releases!)
I have listened to this CD a number of times and will continue to go back to it as it is a CD with which to appreciate and enjoy the art of improvisation and hopefully to be inspired by it too.
David Briggs plays the organ of Bridlington Priory
Lemmens: Fanfare; JS Bach: Liebster Jesu, wir sind hier, BWV731; Pièce d’Orgue, BWV 572, Fantasia à 5, BWV 562; D’Aquin: Noel in G; Franck: Chorale No. 3; Widor Andante sostenuto (Symphonie Gothique); Debussy: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune arr. Cellier; Vierne Final (Symphonie 1)
A CD with this title is obviously firstly about the organ, secondly about the performer and lastly about the music. Having heard so much about this ‘fiery’ organ I think that I may have been initially a little disappointed. The disc, opening with the Lemmens Fanfare, did not present reeds that parted my hair and neither did the presence of the organ walk me out of the room. But this first impression was soon replaced. The Lemmens is effortlessly played, not at all on the edge, the instrument’s voicing is superbly even, it is powerful yet very self-aware, the balances amongst its departments are respectful of each other - this is not an organ that is at odds with itself. There is nothing that is raucous, that dominates or obtrudes, and one realises that the reeds are fiery but not ragged or rude. It is not (if I may analogise) a 100mph car driven at 105mph, but a 200mph super-car driven at 190mph.
The playing throughout has Briggs’s usual effortlessness, style and fluidity, and fluidity really is a hallmark of his playing. The Bach pieces are a beautiful river of notes each voice rippling down its own contrapuntal path. The famous D’Aquin is dexterously rendered, the reeds biting through the texture. The Franck Chorale shows off the tonal variety of the many reeds available and the breadth of the firm, full foundations. The ever changing registration, which is quite orchestral, enhances the music and never makes itself more important.
The Debussy is marvellous; a wonderful transcription and superb realisation, and the performance and music suit the building perfectly. A lack of brightness and length of reverberation is noticeable in the Widor where one would imagine the vastness of the French buildings allowing the music to gently roll around. The Vierne that concludes the disc is taken at a furious pace, and is certainly very exciting.
The booklet is excellent with informative notes on the music (including some registration indications where possible, thus identifying some of the new ranks), plenty of colour photographs, the original and current specification of the organ and a comprehensive biography of the performer. The recording by Lance Andrews (of LAMMAS fame) places the organ nicely in its acoustic and location of ranks within the sound picture. The Priory’s acoustic is slightly disappointing in that its reverberation is neither long or particularly clear and bright. The tonal variety and weight of the instrument is well captured, although the famous huge scale 32’ Contra Tuba is not as dominant as I had (fondly!) imagined. This is a disc whose quality continues to emerge well after the first hearing.
Elgar Transcription Review - Kings College, Cambridge
Elgar Symphony 1 (transcribed Briggs)
To set the scene, Evensong from King’s was to conclude with Elgar’s Sonata in G, but in a way it was good that it didn’t, instead it was something rather more modern that did not interfere with what was coming just a few minutes later. The organ recital was attended by a surprisingly small number; surprising when one examines the performer and venue connection. David Briggs was organ scholar in the early eighties and has gone on to become one of the world’s best known and acclaimed organists; the county’s youngest cathedral organist when he went to Truro and then one who achieved his ambition of becoming organist of Gloucester cathedral - too early. He is now in great demand as concert organist, composer and probably even pilot! And, although King’s was very dark and I was to the east of the organ, I can guess that there were fewer than 100 people at this free recital.
I had sight of the newly transcribed score before the recital and had time to listen through to the symphony following it with the organ score. It was fascinating to see how much here and there was different, but that is another story, suffice it to say that the transcription is very effective. The Symphony sits very well on the organ, enabling Elgar’s melodic lines to soar with unusual nourishment, and sits particularly well on the King’s College Chapel organ, although in some fast moving sections I felt the Harrison a little too smoothly voiced and the glorious acoustic a smidge too glorious, I wanted a little more detail which an orchestra in a hall would happily give.
From the gently majestic opening theme the Harrison & Harrison organ was perfectly at home being treated like an orchestra - a very British orchestra. There were no surprises in Briggs’s interpretation of the symphony itself; speeds were as one would expect and architecture was realised with integrity. What Briggs brings to the organ and transcriptions is the whole symphonic package. It didn’t ever sound like an organ being played with specific points where stops were changed, but the registration ebbed and flowed, melded and grew like Elgar’s own orchestration; there was never any sense of a piston being pushed, even in the moments that Elgar’s orchestration demanded full orchestra die to a whisper within a bar; never a jolt in the seamless movement of the music. This was true mastery and a real treat. The performer and transcription held the audience’s attention for the whole 55-minute-long symphony and while one was able to marvel at the performer and transcription, the unique sound and atmosphere of King’s greatly added to the whole experience.
The score is published by Chestnut Music available from www.david-briggs.org at £45 (including postage from USA) or £30 as a PDF. This does seem like a bargain if your interest is in admiring the art of the transcriber or more of a bargain if you buy it to play it, although it is much more difficult than it looks at first sight!
"Thank you for your wonderful recital as part of this year's I.A.O. Congress. The Cathedral was abuzz with your virtuosity and invention!..."
(John Scott, former Organist of St Paul's Cathedral, London, now Director Of Music, St Thomas Church, 5th Avenue, New York City)