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VW transcriptions ALBCD049
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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Transcriptions from Truro
Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus (1939, arr. organ by David Briggs) [16:00]
The Lark Ascending (1914, arr. organ by David Briggs) [15:09]
Symphony No 5 in D major (1938-43, arr. organ by David Briggs) [45:17]
David Briggs (organ)
Rupert Marshall-Luck (violin: Lark)
rec. 11-13 August 2021, Truro Cathedral, UK

This release from Albion Records is very much a companion to the two disc set released in 2012 with David Briggs playing original organ works and transcriptions of music by Vaughan Williams under the collective title “Bursts of Acclamation”. That remains an absolute treasure trove of unusual organ music superlatively played. Briggs returns to the organ loft here with his own transcriptions of some of Vaughan Williams’ most quintessentially visionary and personal works.

The disc opens with the Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus. The predictably insightful liner note reminds us that this work was played at the 1958 service in Westminster Cathedral when Vaughan Williams’ ashes were laid to rest. As such it embodied the composer’s deep involvement, indeed identification, with English Folksong throughout his life. The liner points out that these are not a set of simple variations but “variants” in the true folksong sense of the word – adaptations of an existing melody to suit the context of the performance and in turn the performer. What is fascinating about Briggs’ dedicated adaption of the work for organ is that it takes on the spirit of an extended organ extemporisation indeed it could easily be considered as “Meditations on Dives and Lazarus”. A great transcription should seek to illuminate in new ways an existing work. This does just that and it is hard not to think that the ever practical Vaughan Williams would have been delighted with the result. Here and throughout the disc Briggs’ choices of registration are perfection and the Father Willis organ of Truro Cathedral has been caught quite beautifully from the gently ruminative to the blazingly affirmative. In its original form, the Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus is one of the great pieces of British String music – the triumph of this new version is just how ‘right’ it sounds in this new format.

For the second work on the disc, David Briggs is joined by violinist Rupert Marshall-Luck for a performance of the perennially popular The Lark Ascending. Andrew Green has written this section of the liner and he points up several important facts about the work. He places it firmly as a pre-World War I work even though it was not performed or published until the 1920’s. That being the case he dispels the notion that this is some concertante “anthem for doomed youth”. What I was not aware of was a strong performing tradition for playing the piece accompanied by organ. So although this is the work’s first recording in this format, players of the stature of Marie Hall, Jelly d’Arányi, Sybil Eaton and Albert Sammons all played the work this way in its early years. Although this is Marshall-Luck’s first recording for Albion he has become a highly-regarded champion of British violin music through his discs for Em Records. This is a very assured performance with Marshall-Luck playing with a beautiful lyrical line and secure technical address although interpretatively he is not as mercurial or light-toned as some. Briggs is as fastidious and attentive an accompanist as would be expected. My concern with the recording is a technical/production choice rather than a musical one. Simply put, I feel the Truro organ is too big to accompany this chamber-spirited work. The climaxes – which work so well in the other pieces on this disc – somehow feel over-blown and excessive here. The use of the pedals again skews the sound world of the piece “down” into the bass line where if this work is anything it is surely “up” in the sunlight. Also, the microphones have been placed quite close to Marshall-Luck – not that he is compromised technically by such a placement – but it seems to my ear that a distanced recording with the violin emerging from the aural mists of the cathedral might have been more atmospheric. Perhaps there was a 2nd ‘choir’ organ with a lighter sound that would have benefitted this interpretation. Make no mistake, this is still a fine and sensitive performance but perhaps an opportunity missed for something more revelatory.

And revelatory is very much how David Briggs’ transcription and performance of the Symphony No 5 in D major emerges. “Bursts of Acclamation” included slow movements from two other Vaughan Williams symphonies but to the best of my knowledge this is the first recording of a complete symphony on the organ. Briggs contributes a personal note which outlines that he made the transcription in the early height of the Covid pandemic and that it acted as an emotional lifeline for him. He also references Herbert Howells’ describing the end of the symphony as “a balm for the whole of mankind”. The use that the composer made of themes from the (then) unfinished opera A Pilgrim’s Progress are well documented and it is hard not to hear the entire work as an expression of faith – as much in mankind as in anything specifically religious. Briggs notes that the transcription and performance on an organ the scale and type as the Truro one changes the character of the work and the impact it has on the listener.

Again the analogy of meditations struck me quite forcibly – Briggs’ timings reinforce this sense of reflection. The overall timing here is around the 45 minute mark, Boult’s EMI recording with the LPO is closer to 38 and Handley in Liverpool 39. But at no point does Briggs feel “slow”, simply contemplative. Of course the sustaining characteristics of an organ in a church acoustic support this approach and it allows the perfectly paced approach to the great “alleluia” climax of the first movement [track 3 10:14]. The Scherzo (presto) that follows is the movement hardest to transfer to this instrument in this acoustic. For all the articulacy and technical brilliance of Briggs’ playing the detail and nuance of Vaughan Williams’ quick-silver writing is rather submerged in the cathedral acoustic. But that same acoustic works beautifully for one of Vaughan Williams’ most inspired creations; the third movement Romanza. Here Briggs is a full two minutes slower than Handley although the timing is almost identical to Bernard Haitink’s raptly radiant version. Recent opinion has not be been too kind to Haitink’s cycle but certainly this particular movement finds him in visionary mood which seems exactly right - and just the same can be said of Briggs.

As MusicWeb’s own John Francis says in his contribution to the liner, although the closing movement is titled Passacaglia it does not strictly adhere to the formal musical definition. Hubert Foss’ evocative description is quoted and well worth repeating here; “[in it is] the warmth of a friendly greeting in which two tunes of equal attraction and reversed motion are opposed and played with: a solution to life’s problems is given to us; but no one of us receiving the gift can make true use of it unless we give an equal offering out of our own inner souls”. If music is about the communication of inner thoughts and feelings then this symphony is a perfect example of how that can be achieved.

Of course this transcription and performance by David Briggs is not intended to replace or supplant the original but as with the finest and most effective arrangements it is able to cast new and revealing light on a long-admired masterpiece. Indeed the whole disc – while acknowledging my preference for a different style of production in the Lark – is another exemplary addition to the Vaughan Williams discography in this anniversary year.

Nick Barnard

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