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Hyperion Records

CDA67808 - Briggs: Mass for Notre Dame
Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris (1986) by Charlotte Johnson Wahl (b1942)
Private Collection / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: July 2009
Gloucester Cathedral, United Kingdom
Produced by Adrian Peacock
Engineered by David Hinitt
Release date: June 2010
DISCID: D4110010
Total duration: 72 minutes 20 seconds


'The Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, sing superbly under the expert direction of Stephen Layton; wonderful quiet, melting legato phrases and passionate forte sections. The composer himself, playing the Gloucester Cathedral organ, provides impeccable accompaniments and stunning improvisations. I can confidently say that this recording is one of the finest CDs of sacred choral and organ music you’ll ever hear. I’m not ashamed to say I had tears in my eyes; listeners who are churchgoers and nonbelievers alike will find this disc a profoundly moving experience' (Gramophone)

Mass for Notre Dame
Messe pour Notre-Dame
Kyrie  [5'11] GreekEnglish
Gloria  [7'10] LatinEnglish
Magnificat  [7'19] English

David Briggs studied with Jean Langlais in Paris and was profoundly influenced by the playing of Pierre Cochereau, Organist Titulaire at Notre Dame Cathedral (1955-1984), from an early age. Briggs was the first British winner of the Tournemire Prize at the St Alban’s International Organ Improvisation Competition. He is Organist Emeritus of Gloucester Cathedral, where he directed the music for eight years. He is renowned worldwide for his brilliant improvisations and is also a prolific composer.

This disc includes Briggs’ Messe pour Notre Dame, and features four movements of David Briggs’ own improvisations—the Introït, Offertoire, Élévation and Sortie. Very much aligned with French liturgical practice, this is Briggs captured in the heat of the improvised, unedited moment. These improvisations display a masterful range of mood and colour. There is delicacy, reflection and repose, alongside mighty bombast and truly gothic ‘shock and awe’. Listening to them is an uniquely thrilling musical experience.

Also included are some of Briggs’ much more Anglophone anthems. The Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, who have been winning increasing praise for their Hyperion recordings, perform with their inspirational director Stephen Layton, and the composer, of course, at the organ.

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
It is fair to say that David Briggs is probably the only person in the world—at least outside France—for whom, at the age of just nine, the death of Marcel Dupré was a major event. Other nine-year-olds, back in 1971, might have registered the deaths of Nikita Khruschchev and Ogden Nash, or more mainstream musicians such as Igor Stravinsky, Jim Morrison and Louis Armstrong. But the passing of one of French music’s legendary organist-improviser-composers would surely have passed every other single-digit youth by.

Improvising at the keyboard—and, by association, that very special form of keyboard improvising at the console of a French electro-pneumatic organ—is in Briggs’ bloodstream. His grandfather, Lawrence Briggs, was a well-known liturgical improviser in Birmingham, where he was Organist of St Jude’s Church on Hill Street for over forty years. ‘I always loved to improvise, since I was six years old, and I remember very well the day Marcel Dupré died’, David Briggs remarks. ‘And nowadays, hearing famous improvisers like Olivier Latry, Philippe Lefebvre, Pierre Pincemaille, Jean Guillou and Daniel Roth is a source of endless stimulation and excitement.’

In the same year as Dupré’s death, Briggs encountered another huge musical presence on the Parisian scene: Pierre Cochereau (1924–1984), Organist Titulaire at Notre-Dame Cathedral from 1955 until his death. ‘I first became addicted to Cochereau’s sound-world as a nine-year-old chorister at Birmingham Cathedral, when John Pryer (the Sub-Organist, himself a brilliant improviser) lent me an LP of the maître improvising a set of Variations on Alouette, gentille Alouette. I heard Cochereau three times at Notre-Dame in the early eighties, and each occasion was a life-changing experience.’

A few years before Briggs’ own close encounters with Cochereau, Stephen Layton was also in Notre-Dame being transported by the cataclysmic blast of Cochereau’s playing. As a ten-year old chorister in Winchester Cathedral Choir, he vividly remembers Cochereau anointing their presence at High Mass with a gradually climaxing, throbbing processional. Those moments in Paris, spine-tingling and affirming, set something off for Layton too. Both he and Briggs ended up, many hundreds of hours’ organ practice later, at King’s College, Cambridge; Briggs was Organ Scholar from 1981 to 1984, Layton from 1985 to 1988 (with Richard Farnes, now Music Director at Opera North, as the link-man from 1983 to 1986).

Layton, since, has focused on conducting (though he still ascends to the organ loft once in a while, always keen to improvise). Briggs, though starting out post-Cambridge in the English cathedral Kapellmeister world, now immerses himself totally in the life of a virtuoso organist-composer. And although he now lives in the USA, he may as well have a French passport. Rather like an Olympic ski champion from the United Arab Emirates, or a prize bull-fighter from the vegetarian heartlands of Totnes, Briggs has broken through robust barriers—infiltrating another culture to the point that he instinctively inhabits it. But amidst that incense-smoked air of the French liturgical organ tradition, he brings to it, significantly, the complementary riches of a very different, equally strong tradition from the other side of La Manche. How extraordinary that socio-historical events across many centuries (Reformations, Revolutions) conspired to create such different musical cultures separated by just twenty-one miles of sea. With its blend of the English liturgical choral tradition and the unique role the organ plays in French liturgy as ersatz choir, this disc is a musical Entente Cordiale indeed.

To inhabit a musical world as much as Briggs does requires what he himself acknowledges as ‘addiction’. In 1984, newly arrived as Assistant Organist at Hereford Cathedral and taking lessons from Jean Langlais, he started transcribing a recording of Cochereau’s improvisations from Christmas Eve 1968. This was ‘primarily with the intent of sharpening my own aural senses, as well as examining in some detail the ravishing and generous harmonic and emotional language which was (and is) unique to Cochereau. I didn’t realize at the time that this was to be the beginning of an extended eleven-year process, on an almost daily basis. It was certainly a labour of love, and it’s not something you get quicker at—I worked out that the average time to transcribe one minute’s music was four hours.’ He should compare notes with two other kinds of musical transcribers of our time: on the one hand, the keyboardists of Progressive Rock tribute bands (notably, facsimiles of Genesis and Yes), whose ambitious, fiddly roles for Hammond organ and synthesizer have to be picked out, note by note, from original recordings; and on the other, the re-creators of film soundtracks whose original manuscripts have been lost or discarded. The most heroic of these is the conductor John Wilson, who has brought back to life several sumptuous MGM film scores in the last decade (the originals’ somewhat tragic destiny was as landfill for a Californian golf course). Like Briggs, Wilson knows how laborious this transcription process can be: he once spent four hours deciphering the pitches and orchestration of a single bar from The Wizard of Oz.

The Messe pour Notre-Dame on this disc is a fusion of Cochereau transcription and Briggs’ own compositional voice. ‘About 15% is based on some wonderful Cochereau improvisations for the Feast of the Assumption in 1962’, he says. ‘I transcribed them from an unedited reel-to-reel recording made in Notre-Dame that day by Fred Tulan, a well-known American organist and great friend of Pierre. You can hear—in the ‘Domine Deus’ section of the Gloria and introductions to the Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei—Cochereau’s incredible invention and ravishing harmonies. I’ve tried to make the link into my own music as imperceptible as possible, but it is for others to say if it’s successful or not!’ Additionally, this recording of the Mass intersperses four movements of David Briggs’ own improvisations—the Introït, Offertoire, Élévation and Sortie. Very much aligned with French liturgical practice, this is Briggs captured in the heat of the improvised, unedited moment—in some cases performing with suitably awestruck members of the Trinity Choir bearing witness in the organ loft.

Messe pour Notre-Dame was indeed conceived specifically for the great Parisian cathedral and its mighty 1868 Cavaillé-Coll organ. The choir it was written for was an English one, however—commissioned by Neil Shepherd and the choir of Keynsham Parish Church, near Bristol, they performed it with Briggs in Notre-Dame on 28 July 2002. What a magnificent gift to that most endangered musical species of the early twenty-first century, the English Parish Church Choir.

In February 2002, when the Mass was composed, Briggs’ musical home and employer was Gloucester Cathedral (though it was a period of transition, swapping roles with his Assistant Organist and Choirmaster, in preparation for his subsequent freelance existence as organist and composer). Gloucester’s organ is unique in English cathedrals, as its reeds are voiced in the French classical style. This was the result of major rebuilds of the 1660 Thomas Harris organ by Hill, Norman and Beard (1971) and Nicholson (1999). Controversial at the time, this Gallic voicing and lower, Continental European wind pressure ensured a snappy start to the note and an ‘open-vowelled’ tone. Free and brassy, with that gloriously flatulent, fairground sound at full blast, it is an instrument à la française that is uniquely apt in Britain for this recording.

For Briggs, ‘composition is the same as slowed-down improvisation—it comes from exactly the same place, although of course you have the opportunity to hone and refine your thoughts’. In the same way, improvisation is composition in real time: a captured instant of creativity, and in the hands of masters—be they Cochereau, Briggs, Jimi Hendrix, Mozart impersonator Robert Levin or any jazzer you can think of—a jaw-droppingly wonderful firing of split-second impulses from brain to fingers and feet. Briggs’ improvisations on this recording—before, in the midst of and following the Mass movements, and as responses to the choral plainchant of the Te Deum—display a masterful range of mood and colour. There is delicacy, reflection and repose, alongside mighty bombast and truly gothic ‘shock and awe’ that humble an American president’s bellicose use of the words.

Just as the Mass takes its lead from settings by Vierne, Widor and Langlais, immediate comparisons with Cochereau’s teacher Duruflé are tempting in the setting of Ubi caritas et amor. Briggs takes the plainchant in different directions harmonically, however, and avoids a mere refurbishment of the Duruflé setting. This a cappella motet, like the Mass, was composed for a Bristol church—Bristol City Church—and first heard too in Notre-Dame de Paris, at Grand-Messe on 30 July 2006.

A few days earlier, in Devon’s Buckfast Abbey, the Exon Singers and conductor Matthew Owens performed Briggs’ setting of Psalm 121 for the first time on a BBC Radio 3 broadcast of Choral Evensong. Without the Frenchified flavours of Briggs’ organ-writing to underpin this work, I will lift up mine eyes is a more overtly English piece, very much in the Anglican mould and sans ail.

Perhaps because the evening canticles are so intrinsic to that Anglican choral tradition, Briggs’ Trinity Magnificat and Nunc dimittis—even with organ accompaniment—feel closer to Dover than to Calais. With a fine sense of architecture and alternations of choral texture, this pairing is the most recent work here—composed for the forces on this recording in 2008.

Briggs’ musical ocean crossing is the English Channel, but for several years now the Atlantic forms the divide between his earlier British life and his current residence in Boston, Massachusetts. The final work on this disc was composed for that remarkable island of musical Anglicanism amidst the bustling commerce of Manhattan. St Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue, sustains a fine choir of boys and men, and it was for these forces and their conductor John Scott that Briggs wrote O Lord, support us in 2005. Commissioned by the then Assistant Organist Jeremy Bruns for his wife Kathy, this setting of an exquisite evening collect from the Book of Common Prayer is a tender wash of unashamed loveliness.

Meurig Bowen © 2010

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