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Lammas Records

Sounds Thrilling
Symphony 'Missa pro defunctis';
(Prelude [8'27]; Arioso [7'52]; Intermezzo [3'25]; Toccata [3'31]; Agite [4'22]; Adagio [4'23]; Final [7'57])
Maurice DURUFLÉ (1902-1986)
Prelude [8'42]
Sicilienne [6'39]
Toccata [8'27]
Stephen Farr (organ)
rec. Blackburn Cathedral, 13 April 2005. DDD
LAMMAS LAMM 189D [63'50]


David Briggs is perhaps the most significant British organist of his generation. Through his championing of the art of Pierre Cochereau, and of the art of improvisation, of which he is his generation's greatest exponent perhaps anywhere in the world, he has inspired the imagination of a completely new generation of British organists. This CD features the first recording of Briggs's new Symphony for Organ, commissioned by the performer Stephen Farr.

The work is a hommage to Maurice Duruflé, inspired by the organ work begun by Duruflé as a Missa pro defunctis, the sketches for which later became the famous Requiem. Just as in the Requiem, Briggs's new work is built upon the plainsong for the Mass for the Dead. The result is a forty minute, seven movement work.

David Briggs's symphony is atmospheric and dramatic. Interestingly the harmonic inspiration of Cochereau seems to me to become a far less important factor in Briggs's compositional style than in his improvisational style. His teacher Langlais seems more in the foreground. Perhaps this shouldn't surprise me, Langlais after all was a composer in the real sense of the word, unlike Cochereau. Wasn't it therefore inevitable that Briggs the composer would be more influenced by Langlais? On the other hand certain Cochereau-isms are unmistakable; in the Arioso the theme played on the Clarinette against the strings, the music so reminiscent of the 'Air' from the 'Suite à la Française' improvised by Cochereau in 1970. The intermezzo is written for 'flying flutes' and (imitation at least) 'petit chamade'. Enough said. The Adagio, 'Sanctus' reminds us very much of the Sanctus from the Duruflé Requiem, using the same plainsong of course, but somehow lacking the same urgency.

To sum up I feel slightly uncomfortable about the whole work. It doesn't remind me at all of Briggs's improvisational style, which is fine of course, but so much of it sounds improvised. In addition I felt as if it wasn't as original as I had expected from such a great mind. 

I would like to plead however for a second recording of this work on an organ other than that of Blackburn Cathedral. The problem with Blackburn is that it seems, since its Briggs-advised rebuild of 2001-2, to offer a handy package, all the 'right' French noises without having to cross the Channel. Well, it’s true, the reeds have a certain éclat and those in the Swell provide a convincing 'caged tiger', the strings are gorgeous, and some other solo stops are fabulously haunting. But on this recording at least, in dynamics above mezzo-forte the organ becomes ugly, the big reeds rough and the mixtures headachy. This is especially overbearing in the dramatic middle section of Briggs's symphony; the mixtures are also very invasive in the outer sections of the Duruflé. Please David Briggs, when you record the work, do it in Rouen. Then I might be seduced.

The Blackburn organ is a Walker of 1969, much along the same lines as the instrument in Liverpool's Metropolitan Cathedral, though rather smaller. Strangely, pre-rebuild recordings of it trouble me far less; its sound in Kevin Bowyer's early eighties performance, for Priory, of Giles Swayne's Riff-Raff is charmingly iconic and I love it. The rebuilt organ, certainly in long forte passages seems, on record at least, to have lost its charm.

Stephen Farr, it must be said, plays extremely well on the disc; the technical challenges of Briggs's work are brilliantly handled and he gives an astoundingly well controlled reading of the Duruflé. The Sicilienne is beautifully modest and atmospheric, the fiendish Toccata is perhaps a little 'straight' if compared to Robilliard on Festivo but very well done nonetheless.

This is worth buying, both for Farr's playing, and because you should judge David Briggs's new symphony for yourself. I am sure it will find many admirers.

Chris Bragg


Lammas Records



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