Recording Reviews and Comments
Here are some comments and reviews about David's recordings...
It is one of the idiosyncrasies of the organ repertoire. Elgar’s Organ Sonata in G, dating from 1895, includes passages which are pretty near impossible for most organists and out of the range of many organs. It seems to have been conceived orchestrally (as Gordon Jacob’s orchestration of it proved pretty conclusively) and there is much to support the argument that it served as something of a trial run before Elgar tackled his first fully fledged orchestral symphony over a decade later. This might lend legitimacy to those attempting to transcribe Elgar’s symphonies for the organ; but his mastery of an orchestra was pretty well complete by the time he completed his First and it has never occurred to me that either it or the 2nd Symphony of 1913 might be successfully transcribed for the instrument. Until now.
David Briggs, whose mastery of the Francophone improvisation is such that there are those who cannot imagine a Briggs performance without one taking centre stage, has also become one of the great transcribers of our time and, with an impressive track record of complete symphonies by Schubert, Tchaikovsky and Mahler, he proves the ideal person to turn Elgar’s distinctly orchestral textures into idiomatic organ music…. Curiously, while they sound utterly convincing as organ music, after a while you forget that these are organ transcriptions and, whether by association or clever registration, the original orchestral colours flood the mind; how fascinating it would be to hear this before hearing Elgar’s originals. Denied that opportunity, I can only say that as a huge fan of Elgar, not least these two symphonies, I have few reservations in what Briggs has done to them here; they are impeccably faithful to both the detail and the essence of Elgar’s original scores, and the only lingering doubt hangs over the very opening of the Second Symphony which seems rather too fussy.
Briggs’ playing is magnificent, an object lesson in virtuosity (there’s a simply breath-taking account of the First Symphony’s scherzo), and the choice of the Worcester Cathedral organ adds a marvellous touch of both geographical authenticity and organistic opulence….
Gramophone Critics’ Choice, December 2015
It's a cause for celebration that one of the world's finest organists should apply his virtuosity to Vaughan Williams's glorious compositions. David Briggs's lovingly crafted performances give us music-making of the highest order. Coupled with the magnificent sounds of the vintage Walker organ at Sacred Heart Church, Wimbledon, this is a CD to treasure.
Though one may not associate Vaughan Williams with the organ, he took lessons from none other than Walter Parratt at the Royal College of Music as well as Alan Gray at Cambridge – the latter wrote to Parratt about VW that he felt ‘some dread as to what he may do’ during simple services. The bugbear here was unpredictability, not technical failure. Nevertheless VW became an organist at St Barnabas in Streatham, London in 1895 and was made a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists by examination three years later. One of the examiners was W Stevenson Hoyte, who taught another budding church organist, a certain Leopold Stokowski – as well as composer George Dyson. There is a small body of original compositions and a larger sequence of transcriptions made by others in this 2-CD set. All will have some interest, in some way, for the composer’s admirers. Perhaps of most interest are the original works, but I’ll briefly point out the transcriptions of the slow movements of A Sea Symphony and A London Symphony which were made by Henry Ley (1887-1962) a close friend of VW and George Butterworth and a real organ virtuoso - in one of those serio-comic phrases the ‘Paderewski of the organ’. VW asked Ley to make a transcription of the Tallis Fantasia in 1953 but Ley turned down the assignment and Peter Beardsley did the honours much more recently. Given the other Ley transcriptions in this set and the existence of his own original piece, the Fantasia on Aberystwyth, I don’t think it’s exaggerating too much to suggest that the VW-Ley axis is the one that drives this box, and it’s worth reflecting on the work of this close friend, and his acutely perceptive transcriptions, as one listens. He was, after all, professor of organ at the RCM from 1919 and few, if any, were better placed than he to transcribe these works and the others too, notably the Alla Sarabanda from the Phantasy Quintet for Strings and the memorable and rousing Antiphon – Let all the World, cannily programmed to conclude the set. Both the symphonic transcriptions work well. The slow movement of the London is predictably evocative, and whilst A Sea Symphony might seem freighted with problems it survives the loss of Whitman rather impressively.
The Three Preludes on Welsh Hymn Tunes (1920-21) and the Prelude and Fugue in C minor are at the heart of the collection. Rhosymedre, the beautiful central movement of the three hymns, was played at VW’s funeral whilst Hyfrydol proves a splendid close. The Prelude and Fugue is by common consent his greatest single organ piece, written in 1921 but revised successively in 1923 and 1930, and dedicated to Ley – though the première was of the orchestrated version.
David Briggs’s transcription of the overture to The Wasps captures its robustness as well as its drollery whilst Herbert Sumsion’s perhaps unexpected choice of the transcription of two movements from the Suite for viola and orchestra actually succeeds rather splendidly – such deft registrations here as well. There are smaller pieces including Stanley Roper’s work on the Fantasia on Greensleeves for instance and some occasional pieces by VW himself, mostly of lesser import – the wedding pieces from 1943 and 1947 are not really at all characteristic. Naturally all the pieces from OUP’s A Vaughan Williams Organ Album can be found here. Amidst these works, as noted earlier, don’t neglect Ley’s solitary original composition. If, as the notes suggest, this is the first recording of a Ley organ piece I very much hope it won’t be the last.
Playing on the 1912 Walker organ of the Sacred Heart Church, Wimbledon, David Briggs plays with great refinement, reserving full power for the most apposite moments, such as the Antiphon, but always phrasing with care and sensitivity. Albion also provides one of their sumptuous booklets, packed with information and with full organ specifications. This is an excellently produced set, opening up under-explored vistas, and with it Albion Records adds handsomely to its already important Vaughan Williams portfolio.
Jonathan Woolf, December 2015
Gramophone Magazine, October 2015
Although Vaughan Williams and the organ did not enjoy a natural rapport (despite the best efforts of his teachers WaIter Parratt and Alan Gray), he did manage to acquire his FRCO diploma at the age of 2 5, and to hold down an organist's post in South Lambeth for four years in the 1890s. Of his original works, organists have had a small published selection from which to choose. The lovely Three Preludes Founded on Welsh Hymn Tunes (especially the middle one, Rhosymedre - a svelte study in legato) have never fallen out of favour. Matters improved in 1964 with the publication of OUP's A Vaughan Williams Organ Album.
Everything from these two volumes is included in this handsome new double disc, plus three occasional wedding pieces. All that is missing are two pieces of organ juvenilia which remain in manuscript. The largest of the original works is the Prelude and Fugue in C minor of 192 1-30, a rather prolix work, which caused the composer a good deal of trouble, and lies awkwardly under the hands and feet. However, its gritty, acerbic difficulties melt away under David Briggs's effortless poise; he tackles it head-on, allegro con fuoco, and makes a convincing case for its elusive merits. Much of the programme consists of transcriptions and arrangements of instrumental works. Brigg's new transcription of the Wasps Overture is a real sparkler and, as a former Organist of Gloucester Cathedral, he knows exactly how to pace Peter Beardsley's take on the Tallis Fantasia, imbuing it with a sheen of glorious string tone. The generously disposed three-manual J W Walker organ of 1912 in Wimbledon's Sacred Heart Church is the ideal choice for this Romantic programme. The full organ is used sparingly and even then never overpoweringly. There are a few tiny extra-musical murmurs from the machine itself but this is all part of its charm.
The lion's share of the transcriptions goes to Henry G Ley, Vaughan Williams's professorial colleague at the RCM in London. The London Symphony's slow movement is beautifully moulded and although, initially, I had my doubts over A Sea Symphony sans Whitman, this also is highly effective. Fittingly, Ley's own fine Fantasia on Aberystwyth of 1928 is included. His concluding transcription of the 'Antiphon' (from Five Mystical Songs) provides the final Burst of Acclamation - 'those loud triumphant chords' concluding this triumph of musicianship.
BBC Music Magazine
This issue will naturally be a gold mine for organ buffs, yet it has been expertly devised to have a wider appeal. With one exception, most of the original works are non-vintage Vaughan Williams: he was a dab hand at small-scale organ preludes and occasional pieces, and a good selection of those is here. The exception is the Prelude and Fugue in C minor - composed for formidable master-organist Henry Ley, and easily impressive enough to stand alongside other classic works of its kind in the repertory.
At least as interesting, meanwhile, are the various organ transcriptions of Vaughan Williams's music by others. John Francis's booklet note points out that the composer's early years as working organist in London (at St Barnabas, South Lambeth) may well have coloured his mature orchestral style, with its long-sustained, widely spread chords and powerful sense of acoustic space. The transcriptions of the Sea Symphony and London Symphony slow movements (by Henry Ley) and the Tallis Fantasia (by Peter Beardsley) sound convincingly idiomatic in their way, and also beautiful. Briggs's concern to avoid organ-dirge syndrome, admirable in itself, leads him to undercut some of the music's space and grandeur at special moments: the great climax of Largo sostenuto from A Sea Symphony, or the Tallis Fantasia's space-generating opening chords, surely pass by a little too swiftly. In every other respect his command and musicianship are state-of-the-art.