This enterprising disc showcases the talents of
two of the foremost organists of the current generation. Both Jeremy
Filsell and David Briggs, who are almost exact contemporaries and have
been friends and colleagues for many years, have attracted widespread
acclaim as organists - and, in Filsell’s case, as a pianist. However
as this programme demonstrates, both of them are fine composers as well
as performers. Both are now based in North America, Filsell in Washington
D.C. and Briggs in Toronto. The Vasari Singers have had the very happy
idea of bringing the two of them together for this project, commissioning
them to write music for this disc and inviting each to accompany their
respective pieces on the organ.
The recordings were made during what must have been a pretty busy and
exciting weekend in the chapel of Tonbridge School in Kent. That’s
one of the Vasari Singers’ favourite recording locations. We know
from previous discs that one of its attractions is the Marcussen organ,
which was built in 1995, I believe. The instrument was equal to the
prodigious demands of Francis Pott’s The Cloud of Unknowing
which the Vasaris and Filsell recorded there a few years ago (review
and its credentials are endorsed in the Naxos booklet by David Briggs,
who rates the instrument as “magnificent” and describes
it as “deliciously suave, Swedish and refined, but here with a
believable French accent, saturated in not a little garlic.” The
organ, superbly captured by the recording team of Adrian Peacock and
William Brown, makes a stellar contribution to this programme: only
on two tracks is it silent.
Jeremy Filsell somewhat modestly describes his choral pieces as music
that “embod[ies] the church musician at work’”. Don’t
be led by that statement to underestimate the selection of his music
that is presented here for these pieces are of genuine substance - firmly
and productively rooted in the traditions of the music of the English
church. Several of them were composed during the decade that Filsell
spent as an alto lay clerk in the choir of St. George’s Chapel,
Windsor Castle before he moved to the USA in 2008. Indeed, the Windsor
Service was written specifically for that choir. These canticles are
impressive. There’s much vivid and dramatic music, both for choir
and organ, in the Magnificat though there’s a slower, more reflective
section at ‘He remembering His mercy’, where the organ falls
silent. The Nunc Dimittis begins in a mood of quiet prayerfulness, the
tempo slow, but at ‘To be a light to lighten the Gentiles’
the music becomes powerful and majestic in a most imposing fashion.
Perhaps the most commanding of these four Windsor Canticles is the Te
Deum. When I first listened to the disc I hadn’t read the notes
and I was struck by the similarity between the opening of Filsell’s
setting and Walton’s Coronation Te Deum
. When later I read
his notes I read his comment that he had “failed to banish”
Walton’s setting from his mind. Well, if you’re going to
have a model for a Te Deum Walton’s magnificent setting is not
a bad precedent. In truth, though Waltonian fingerprints are all over
the opening and reappear at ‘We believe that Thou shalt come to
be our Judge’, Filsell goes his own way for most of the piece.
Not surprisingly, there’s an excitingly virtuosic organ part and
it sounds to me as if the choral parts must be exhilarating to sing,
especially as the mood of the music frequently changes to match the
sentiments of the text. This is a tremendous setting and it’s
thrillingly performed here.
Jeremy Filsell has written not one but two pieces for this programme.
Tomorrow shall be my dancing day
is mainly joyful and light on
its feet though there’s a slower, more thoughtful section at ‘In
a manger laid and wrapped I was.’ This is an effective and enjoyable
piece. Epitaph (Here shadow lie)
a strong contrast. It’s an a cappella
setting of a seventeenth
century epitaph. Filsell describes this as “harmonically static
but prayerful”. The harmonies may be as he describes them but
the harmonic language is anything but uninteresting. He’s composed
a lovely piece and the Vasari Singers make a splendid job of it.
I heard some pieces by David Briggs during his time as Director of Music
at Gloucester Cathedral (1994-2002) and my most recent encounter with
his music came in the shape of the very fine Hyperion disc by Trinity
College, Cambridge (review
That CD had as its centrepiece the thrilling Messe de Notre Dame
(2002). The Mass setting on this new disc is also named after an important
Parisian church, Saint-Sulpice. It was an Anglo-Canadian commission
which was inspired, Briggs tells us, by the huge acoustic of that church,
which is where it was first performed. Though he doesn’t say so
I wonder if the Mass is also a homage to the great French organist,
Louis Vierne, who was assistant organist (to his teacher, Widor) at
the church in the last few years of the nineteenth century. Vierne’s
excellent Messe solenelle
in C sharp minor, which Briggs recorded
during his time at Gloucester, was composed during Vierne’s time
at Saint-Sulpice. Like the Vierne Mass, and several others by French
composers, the setting by Briggs is for SATB choir with accompaniment
organs - the Grand Orgue, which plays independently, and
the smaller Orgue de Choeur, which accompanies the singing. Briggs’
work can be accompanied by a single instrument, as is done here, though
I should love to hear a performance with two organs to experience the
The Kyrie opens, as it does in the Vierne setting, with a dramatic,
imposing organ introduction. After this the choir’s contribution
takes the form of a quieter supplication, though the ‘Christe’
is more urgent in tone. The Gloria is surprisingly subdued at first.
Most settings of the Gloria begin joyfully and loudly; relatively few
in my experience start quietly and reverently - Gounod’s St.
is one such. However, things get cracking at ‘Laudamus
te’, with the organ well to the fore. There’s an expressive,
lyrical section at ‘Domine Deus’ but at ‘Quoniam tu
solus Sanctus’ the music becomes powerful and exciting, leading
to a full-on ending; hereabouts the sound of the organ is truly thrilling
and the choir’s contribution is no less stirring. The Sanctus
has another majestic organ introduction which leads to joyfully pealing
choir parts and the ‘Hosanna’ is jubilant. In contrast the
mood of the Benedictus is aptly described by the composer as one of
“intimate serenity.” Here Briggs’ music is founded
on lovely, delicate textures. The Agnus Dei contains arguably the deepest
music. There’s a tone of subdued urgency in this beautiful prayer
for peace. This is a very fine Mass setting and I hope its appearance
on CD will encourage other choirs to take it up. It is showcased splendidly
in this performance by the Vasari Singers with the composer presiding
in the organ loft.
Even using good quality noise reduction headphones I find that I can’t
while away a plane journey by listening to music; there’s too
much surrounding noise to permit a satisfactory listening experience.
David Briggs, it seems, is able to compose
music during a flight!
, he tells us, was largely written “at 38,000
feet on an American Airlines Boeing 767, en route from London to Boston
in September 2012.” This is his commissioned work for the present
CD. He sets three verses of the old hymn by St. Thomas Aquinas; the
first verse and the last two. The piece is for unaccompanied choir.
The tempo is slow and the mood devotional. The harmonic language is
rich and sensuous - I love, for example, the harmonic shift right at
the end of the first stanza. In the second verse, ‘Tantum ergo’,
the music starts to move forward slightly and it grows in intensity.
The harmonies become even more interesting; I was put in mind of Howells
but there’s also evidence of Briggs’ love of French music.
At the end Briggs reverts to the opening words, ‘Pange lingua
gloriosi’, which we hear to gorgeous, quiet music. This is a very
fine piece, demanding to sing, I should think, but it seems to have
fired the imagination of Jeremy Backhouse and his fine choir who give
it a rapt performance. Afterwards, David Briggs plays a subdued, reflective
improvisation on the plainchant Tantum ergo
, his approach to
the melody reminding us that this is a hymn of adoration and that adoration
is perhaps best expressed quietly and with humility. The improvisation
is a perfect foil to his Pange lingua
and in the context of this
programme it provides an ideal bridge to the Mass; one can almost imagine
the clergy processing to the altar.
This is a very fine disc indeed and one that I’ve enjoyed greatly.
The music of both featured composers is of the highest quality and the
performances are surely definitive. The Vasari Singers are on top form,
singing with incisiveness and great commitment. There are several opportunities
for short solos which are taken by choir members and all acquit themselves
very well. I should imagine that all this music presents challenges
to the singers but the choir is equal to every demand made by the respective
composers. In Jeremy Backhouse they have a conductor who is renowned
for his expertise with contemporary choral music. As for the organ parts
these sound hugely demanding but we have two players on hand who, without
exaggeration, can be said to be among the world’s finest organists:
they live up to expectations. The recorded sound is excellent: the organ
is superbly reported with the choir balanced expertly against it. Each
composer provides good notes about their respective pieces.
At first sight this may seem like a disc with specialist appeal but
I hope that won’t be the case. None of this music, with the exception
of Jeremy Filsell’s Jubilate
, has been recorded before,
and at the Naxos price this disc affords an excellent opportunity to
sample first rate music which is firmly in the tradition of English
church music. It moves that tradition forward in a most stimulating,
accessible and inspiring way. I do urge you to try it: I think you’ll
be excited by what you hear.
Superb performances of exciting church music by two British composers,
best known as virtuoso organists.