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MAHLER: Symphony No.5Transcribed for and played on the organ of Gloucester Cathedral by David BriggsPriory PRCD 649



Why, when you have in Mahler one of the greatest and most original of orchestrators, who in his Fifth Symphony was moving into a new phase of greater refinement in orchestration, should David Briggs find it necessary to transcribe the piece for organ ? He supplies some answers in his notes: "The organ concert audience in the early years of this century (before the advent of LPs, CDs and cassettes) would have been used to hearing programmes consisting largely, if not entirely, of orchestral transcriptions and, particularly in the provinces, this would have been their main access to music." Which is true, of course, but this is not the early part of this century and we do now have recordings (and broadcasting and easier access to concerts), so need the practice now apply ? He goes on: "....a good transcription can heighten our awareness of the message behind the music and we can listen with new ears." The second point is true, but the first - whether a good transcription can heighten our awareness of the message behind the music - is debatable, certainly where the transcription is a rendering down from an orchestra to a keyboard as opposed to a rendering up from a keyboard to an orchestra.

There is an honourable tradition of piano transcriptions of orchestral compositions that falls well into Briggs's "new ears" justification. It is that they have additional value in enabling an orchestral work to be submitted to "workbench analysis" since the piano is more often than not where the orchestral work first saw light of day. The piano has a head start over the organ as the instrument of choice here since it brings less aural "baggage" with it. When we hear an organ we are in the presence of something that will set up associations that the piano won't: church, ceremony, worship, hymns, and all that without the additional question of acoustic since cathedral organs exist in a unique space.

This question of aural baggage presents itself in the opening bars in a way I can't believe David Briggs wouldn't have been aware of. The connection between the opening fanfare of Mahler's Fifth and that of the Wedding March from Mendelssohn's music to "A Midsummer Night's Dream" has often been noted. In its orchestral guise it's no more than an interesting similarity. Played on the organ the connection between it and so many church weddings one might have attended is inescapable and it brought a smile to my face where none should have been. A case of "new ears" delivering "wrong message", I think. It would, of course, be wrong to let this initial impression prejudice the rest of the transcription, but it's a paradigm of what can happen when such a project is undertaken.

More problems with our "new ears" occur at the first movement's first great jumping-off point at 155. In the orchestra the impression is of wildness and terrified desperation. On the organ it's all too jolly and redolent of fairgrounds. At the conclusion of the section I also became aware of something else that will be an associated problem right the way through. There is a world of difference between how a phrase that is written for and played by musicians who rely on the length of a bow or their breath and the way it has to be played by two hands on an organ keyboard. So the phrasing of an organ transcription, especially at speed, is subtly different from what we are used to and the composer's intention must be judged to be undermined.

At the conclusion of the movement Briggs seems to contradict his "new ears" justification. As the orchestral scoring in the symphony thins down to wind solos, he uses particular registers of his organ to mimic the flute, clarinet and muted trumpet and this does return us to familiar ground. But we don't need the organ to imitate these instruments. We can go to a recording for the real thing and this calls into question how good a transcription this really is if David Briggs's definition of one is one that makes us hear the original with "new ears".

The end of the movement is one of Mahler's masterstrokes: a harsh pizzicato crack from a lone double bass. I'm afraid Briggs's flatulent burp from some pedal notes is just not the same and no valid substitute.

I've concentrated most on the first movement because it seems to illustrate most of the negative aspects of this CD. But it would be wrong to say that nowhere does the transcription work on its own terms which, I believe, is how it's to be best judged. Forget "new ears", forget historical precedent, forget composer's workbench. What do you get from it as a stand-alone piece of music ?

In the second movement you would have to have a heart of stone not to respond to the arrival of the chorale around 464. In many ways this is David Briggs's finest moment and he prepares for it and delivers it superbly. But this is music that ought to work well on an organ and my "new ears" make me wonder whether Mahler had the sound of the organ in his head when he wrote it. One up to Briggs, but maybe he is helped by Mahler. The same applies earlier at 188, the monody of the lamenting cellos. Briggs delivers this in a way I wish some conductors would: flowing, noble, not dragging or mannered - it sounds "right" on the organ. Maybe some conductors should give it a listen. They might learn something.

In the third movement Briggs and his organ finds it hard to match Mahler's dance rhythms for reasons already gone into but he does well with the music for solo horn, especially in the later section where the tempo quickens. He also has the opportunity to use more of the different colours his instrument is capable of and in a way that doesn't attempt to mimic orchestral instruments. However, the diversity possible on an organ is a fraction of the diversity possible with a large orchestra, so there are no new messages to be gleaned other than how much more of what Mahler is trying to say is carried by his orchestral palette - but I think I knew that anyway. There is also that question of phrasing, especially in the faster sections, that takes some swallowing even when you judge the music as presented here. The transcription seems to be telling us that so much of the way Mahler wrote what he wrote is governed by the fact that he had an orchestra in his head from the start.

You might expect the fourth movement Adagietto to work best. With one instrumental sound in the orchestra the organ version should be less of a problem for our "new ears" as they can concentrate on the line of the music rather than the timbre and so there is greater opportunity for listening without prejudice. Isn't there ? Well, for me, this is the least successful movement on the organ. For one thing it's unsuited to deliver the passages written for high violins and nothing seems to be gained from so much being transposed down. (There are many transpositions right the way through the work.) And this is also intimate music, permeated with nostalgia, that Mahler may have meant as a love letter to Alma. As the movement progresses and the sound of the organ swells, any intimacy is dissipated. At the climax all we are left with is grandeur and portent which I don't believe is what Mahler wanted and which this music cannot really deliver.

On its own terms the last movement works best. This is probably because there are expanses of fugue which work superbly on an organ as well as more straightforward orchestration where special effects aren't really used. There is also the return of the Adagietto music, and the chorale from the second movement, and the latter works well here again. Indeed there is about this movement the air of a great piece of improvisation, music tumbling out of the head, and it made me think back to Mahler's original with something positive to remember.

I can imagine the kind of music lovers who would enjoy this CD. They would be fans of the cathedral organ and fine playing of it who might additionally know Mahler's music and so for whom hearing it on their favourite instrument would strike them as some kind of Heaven. If you fall into either or both categories, buy with confidence.

It isn't hard to see why a brilliant organist like David Briggs, with a superb instrument like Gloucester Cathedral's, would want to make this project possible. "My own relationship with Mahler's Fifth Symphony," he tells us, "started at the age of fourteen when, as a viola player in the National Youth Orchestra, I was completely overawed by the extraordinary intensity and excitement of this music. To make an organ transcription has long been a personal ambition." At the start I asked why would he find it necessary to transcribe this work and I think he has just given us the answer. Because he wanted to. And because he could.


Tony Duggan


Tony Duggan

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