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Apocalyptic walls of sound cascade around the Gothic vaults of Saint-Eustache in Paris as Stephen Layton and David Briggs unleash, respectively, the full power of a top-notch Trinity Choir and the mighty van den Heuvel organ of 1989.
In many ways, this album is simply the continuation of that artistic partnership forged in the organ loft at King’s during the 1980s, and the logical culmination of those heady student days. Still drawn to Paris—this time by the famous sixteenth-century church of Saint-Eustache—Layton and Briggs have shaped this project around the unique possibilities afforded by the space. The organ provides the vast tonal palette and the building the ideal acoustics necessary to capture this music in its fullest glory. This recording—the second such collaboration between Briggs, Layton and Trinity for Hyperion after their 2010 Mass for Notre Dame—contains a panoply of Briggs’s choral compositions from the past twenty years. The harmonic language is broadly similar across the spread of works, but variety and eclecticism abound in other ways: zingy pieces for choir and organ sit alongside plainchant-infused fauxbourdon settings, while romantic a cappella miniatures find company among austere alternatim works. Meanwhile, everything is linked and bound together by a series of connecting improvisations, performed by Briggs, which forge the album into a sequence that is at once coherent and diverse.
Indeed, improvisation is at the heart of Briggs’s work as an organist and composer. Recognized now as one of the foremost practitioners of this art, he frequently improvises in both concert and liturgical settings (since 2017 Briggs has been an Artist in Residence at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York). But it runs much deeper than this: improvisation is not merely one of several things that Briggs ‘does’, but is rather a foundational influence on his entire musical perspective and compositional voice. For him, improvisation and composition are really one and the same thing. He describes the act of composition as ‘slowed down improvisation’, or ‘improvisation with a delete button’, where one can go back and make revisions after the fact. In short, improvisation forms a fundamental aesthetic of Briggs’s compositional style, permeating his writing in a number of ways.
The Jubilate Deo and Te Deum that begin and end the album respectively were commissioned by St Davids Cathedral, Wales, in 2010, the latter for a service to celebrate the installation of a new Dean. Exuberance pervades the Jubilate, with its sprightly dialogue between organ and choir. There is a sense of playful—and improvisatory—jousting between the two at the start: each organ phrase ends on a different chord, challenging the singers to begin their own reply from a new harmonic location. The organ part builds up intense rhythmic energy over the opening section, with athletic pedal arpeggios, rapid semiquaver runs, and cross-rhythms between the hands. A lyrical (but still expansive) inner section begins ‘be thankful unto him’, before upbeat music from the start is reprised for the Gloria.
The improvised Prelude that follows immediately shifts us down from the brightness of the Jubilate and into murkier depths. Briggs retains the pitch E from the previous work, but now introduces a clashing D sharp, which growls at the bottom of the instrument. A theme emerges in the very lowest notes of the pedals—the opening motif of the preceding Jubilate, but now transformed into a slower, more ponderous entity. There follows a slow, awe-inspiring ascent out of the initial darkness and into a resplendent, radiant outpouring, before finally the improvisation ends on an unresolved augmented triad centred on D, from which the next choral work will start. The ghost of Mahler hovers around certain moments in this piece, particularly over the slow descending melodies in the pedals while the hands hold sustained notes—an unsurprising allusion given Briggs’s immersion in Mahler’s symphonies, several of which he has transcribed for organ.
Set me as a seal was written in a morning in 2011, as a wedding gift for two close friends. The text, from the Song of Solomon, is at once tender and forceful, and the music conveys this. At the start, as one lover asks the other to ‘Set me as a seal upon thine heart’, the unaccompanied choral parts start within close range of one another, before fanning outwards gradually. The voices all move together, in homophonic confidentiality. Briggs marks the final section ‘vision de l’éternité’ and sets it in the bright key of F sharp major—reminiscent of Messiaen’s O sacrum convivium and conveying a heavenly glow. God be in my head is also set in F sharp major, and indeed it exudes the same sense of intimacy. Briggs subtitles this work ‘Une prière personnelle’; here understated lilting phrases express this private prayer of personal devotion.
One might discern a certain Marian mood at the start of the Intermezzo improvisation, given the thematic parallels between its opening melodic gestures and the Ave maris stella plainchant. This improvisation explores the array of flute stops on the Saint-Eustache organ. The contemplative opening gives way to rippling textures, before a lone reed utters a melancholy tune. Birdsong is never far away here.
Briggs’s setting of the Easter Responsory Surrexit Dominus begins with the plainchant in the right hand of the organ over punchy chords in the left hand and pedals. The singers then burst forth with the joyful Respond, proclaiming that ‘Risen is the Lord indeed’. Yet an even greater surprise awaits: before the choir has finished the last note of the Gloria, the organ explodes into an ecstatic blaze of sound, whose long opening gestures are redolent of those employed by Briggs’s one-time teacher Jean Langlais. Suddenly, the plainchant disappears; a series of descending figures plunges us down into the depths, after which a gradual ascent builds towards a final climax and the choir resurfaces for one last Respond and ‘Alleluia’. The improvised Toccata on Surrexit Dominus sees the same plainchant theme return: it begins in the pedals, before rising through the texture to emerge in a chorale-like hymn towards the end of the piece. Throughout much of the improvisation a rapid, fiery figuration occupies the hands—fast throughout, but which really takes off in the closing seconds of the improvisation.
In Hail, gladdening Light Briggs adopts the double-choir model espoused by Charles Wood in his setting of the same text, which Briggs no doubt sang as a treble during his time as a chorister at Birmingham Cathedral. To each line of text Briggs devotes a distinctive melodic motif, and he then layers these upon each other in a highly pictorial way. The result is that we fade from one scene into the next—from the glow of the evening sun into a hymn of praise, for instance—giving rise to a uniquely cinematic impression of John Keble’s translation of the ancient Greek Orthodox hymn.
Both Surrexit Dominus and Vexilla regis were composed in 2011 for The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, and each takes the plainchant setting of its respective text as a starting point. Briggs explains that he treats the plainchant as a ‘kernel in the middle of everything’, and then expands harmonically around it. Vexilla regis follows the alternatim practice, whereby singers alternate with the organist, taking turns to sing or play a verset. The alternatim style attained popularity in the French Baroque, and Briggs’s organ versets hark back to this period through their form and structure—albeit not in their harmony, which is thoroughly of the present.
Of all the works on this album, Ubi caritas et amor perhaps presents Briggs at his most intimate; indeed, it was composed for his own wedding to Madge Nimocks in 2004. The basic building block of this piece is a mellifluous, flowing melody that is heard in the organ at the start and which recurs several times across the work. Meanwhile, a slower theme for the choir floats serenely around this organ melody, somewhat in the manner of Fauré’s writing for choir and organ.
The Trinity College Fauxbourdon Service is the second set of Evening Canticles composed by Briggs for the Choir, and when commissioning this set in 2020 Layton specifically asked for them to be composed in the fauxbourdon style, which (similar to the alternatim practice) sees individual lines of plainchant alternate with more ornate polyphony, verse by verse. Famous such settings of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis exist by Thomas Morley and William Byrd, but Briggs aimed with this composition to re-cast the genre through a twenty-first-century prism—to imagine ‘what Byrd would write if he were living in New York in 2020’, as he puts it. Thus, while the plainchant remains exactly as Byrd and his contemporaries would have known it, the polyphonic choral sections stand in sharp contrast, with probably the most pungent, forward-looking harmonies of any piece on this album.
The Cantabile improvisation takes the form of a ‘tierce en taille’—a staple movement of the French Classical organ suite in which the melody is played in the tenor register with a specific combination of stops that includes the ‘tierce’. The opening motif of this improvisation starts with the exact-same turn figure that begins the flute Intermezzo, providing a point of connection across the improvisations recorded here. A sense of reverie characterizes the introductory passage, but this is gradually dispelled by an increasingly active tierce melody.
The opening of the Te Deum bursts with virtuosity in every direction: rapid figurations in the organ part build to an explosion of choral sound, arriving at its first climax with the phrase ‘Holy, Holy, Holy: Lord God of Sabaoth’. As with the Jubilate, there is constant dialogue between the organ and choir throughout this work. One almost senses Briggs sitting at the console, composing in ‘real time’, and with each interjection spurring the choral forces onto their next phrase. Indeed, the partnership between choir and organ could not be tighter than it is here—the summation of an artistic partnership born of a shared passion and sustained over decades.
Joseph Fort © 2024