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David BRIGGS (b. 1962)
Messe pour Notre-Dame (2002)
Track listing below review
The Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge/Stephen Layton
David Briggs (organ)
rec. 8-10 July 2009, Gloucester Cathedral. DDD
Texts and English translations included
HYPERION CDA67808 [72:34]

Experience Classicsonline

Just occasionally, for whatever reason and despite our vigilance, an important release will slip through the net and will not be reviewed on MusicWeb International. So it was, I found, when I acquired a copy of this CD not long ago.
As a resident of Gloucester I well remember David Briggs’s time as Director of Music at the cathedral (1994-2002). During his time there he oversaw the rebuilding of the cathedral’s organ, completed in 2000, and he attracted significant attention as a prodigiously gifted organist and improviser. On leaving Gloucester - he was then given the title Organist Emeritus - he pursued a career as a concert organist, also devoting much more time to composition. In September 2012 he became Artist in Residence at St. James Cathedral, Toronto. For this recording he returned to Gloucester and collaborated with Stephen Layton and his Trinity College choir.
Though it is well suited to other types of music, the rebuilt Gloucester organ is very well equipped to give an authentic voice to French music - no doubt the result of David Briggs’ input into the redesign. As there’s a pronounced Gallic flavour to much of the repertoire on this disc the venue could scarcely have been better chosen and I should say straightaway that the recording team of engineer David Hinitt and producer Adrian Peacock seem to me to have done a conspicuously successful job of recording the organ which is caught here to stunning effect.
The Mass, which forms the centrepiece of this programme, was written not for a leading cathedral choir but for Neil Shepherd and the choir of the Parish Church at Keynsham, near Bristol. They first performed it, with Briggs at the organ, in Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris in July 2002. It’s a remarkable work, which I’d not heard prior to getting this disc. The organ part is a huge one and sounds to encompass prodigious difficulties. I just hope that the fact that the piece clearly requires a virtuoso organist will not deter other choirs from taking it up. As Meurig Bowen points out in his excellent note, the setting “takes its lead” from the Masses by Louis Vierne, Jean Langlais and Widor - Briggs recorded the Vierne and Langlais Masses during his time in Gloucester (PRCD 597). From the composer’s website I learned that one thing that the Briggs Mass has in common with all those settings is that the accompaniment is for two organs, following the frequent French practice. Many French cathedrals have a Grand Orgue, usually situated at the west end of the nave, and a smaller organ, located towards the front of the church, near to the choir stalls, which is used to accompany the choir. However, all the aforementioned French Masses can be adapted reasonably easily so as to be performed with one organ and, clearly, the same approach has been followed here.
David Briggs has long been influenced by the celebrated French organist, Pierre Cochereau, who was renowned for his improvisations. Back in 1992, before coming to Gloucester Cathedral from Truro Cathedral, Briggs recorded in Truro a disc of his own transcriptions of improvisations by Cochereau (PRCD 428) and according to the notes Cochereau’s benign influence hovers over this Mass. Throughout all the movements of the Mass the organ plays a crucial, sometimes dominant role. This is particularly true of long stretches of the Gloria, especially the jubilantly dancing ending, from ‘Quoniam tu solus’ onwards. I found Briggs’ setting of the Gloria constantly interesting and often arresting. The Sanctus ends with an ecstatic - and very loud - ‘Hosanna’. By contrast much of the Benedictus features only the organ - some liquid textures - and sopranos with the full choir held back for a reprise of the ‘Hosanna’. The Agnus Dei’ is very impressive. It starts quietly but the pleas first for mercy and then for peace become increasingly ardent though the movement achieves an ethereal close.
The movements of the Mass are interspersed with other music, as they would be in a liturgical context. There’s a ravishing a cappella setting of Ubi caritas et amor which, by coincidence, was also written for a Bristol church choir and first performed by them in Notre-Dame. Like the wonderful setting of the same text by Maurice Duruflé, this motet uses plainchant as its foundation but Briggs’ piece is more elaborate, not least in its harmonies. It’s a very lovely piece and Stephen Layton and his choir give it a superb performance. The other pieces within the Mass are organ improvisations by Briggs. The Introit is richly textured while the Offertoire and Élévation are subdued and subtle: you can almost smell the Gauloises. The concluding Sortie is something else entirely. This is a toccata of jaw-dropping virtuosity during which the Gloucester organ is given a thorough work-out. It’s absolutely thrilling and the organ sound is truly magnificent.
Later in the programme the organ is centre-stage again. Briggs’s setting of the Te Deum calls for the choir to sing unison chant, accompanied by the organ. After each line of sung text the organ plays a short continuation or commentary. The Te Deum is followed, attacca, by a thunderous improvised toccata. Here, the pedals are often well to the fore in what is another staggering display of virtuosity at the organ. Briggs’ improvisation is exhilarating and inventive - and tremendously exciting.
The ‘Mag & Nunc’ written for this very choir are very impressive; here, as in the unaccompanied I will lift up mine eyes, Briggs’ music is much more English, indeed Anglican, in tone. Stephen Layton and David Briggs might have been content to end their programme with the tumultuous Toccata on Te Deum laudamus. Instead they opt for something much less ‘public’ in the shape of O Lord, support us for choir and organ. I’m so glad they did. This little gem was written for the choir of St Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue in New York. Meurig Bowen describes it as “a tender wash of unashamed loveliness”. I’d second that but I’d add that it’s also very eloquent. It caught my ear just as forcibly as some of the more spectacular music on the disc: when I first played the CD this was the track that I repeated immediately. It’s a most satisfying finis to the programme.
The singing of Trinity College Choir is absolutely splendid throughout - these fresh, expertly trained young voices are ideal for the task in hand. As for David Briggs’ organ playing, it is quite simply world-class and his reunion with the Gloucester Cathedral organ which, in its rebuilt form so much bears his stamp, is a very happy one. There’s a full specification of the organ in the booklet, the design and content of which is fully up to Hyperion’s usual high standards.
What of the recorded sound? The choir is excellently recorded and when they are singing in partnership with the full organ the balance is expertly judged. However, it’s the sound of the organ that takes the breath away. In a word it’s spectacular. I’m very familiar with the cathedral’s organ - I remember well the excitement at the recital in January 2000 when David Briggs unveiled the rebuilt instrument - and I can honestly say that engineer David Hinitt and producer Adrian Peacock have reproduced it magnificently. What comes out of the loudspeakers is thrillingly present and reports the instrument faithfully. I don’t think I’ve heard this magnificent instrument caught so well on disc before.
In much of the music on this disc David Briggs achieves a kind of musical entente cordiale, marrying very successfully the English choral tradition with that of French church music. The results are compelling and I urge you to hear them for yourself.
John Quinn  

Track listing
Introit (organ improvisation) [2:48]
Kyrie [5:11]
Gloria [7:10]
Offertoire (organ improvisation) [1:49]
Ubi caritas et amor (2006) [3:09]
Sanctus [3:05]
Benedictus [4:02]
Élévation (organ improvisation) [2:54]
Agnus Dei [5:44]
Sortie (organ improvisation) [3:59]
I will lift up mine eyes (2006) [3:45]
The Trinity College Service (2008)
Magnificat [7:19]
Nunc dimittis [5:19]
Te Deum laudamus (2006) [7:16]
Toccata on Te Deum laudamus (organ improvisation) [2:30]
O Lord, support us (2005) [6:00]

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