Kerensa Briggs (b. 1991)
Prelude on ‘Pange Lingua’
The Windsor Service; Magnificat & Nunc dimittis (2019)
I will lift up mine eyes (Psalm 121)
Anita Monserrat (mezzo-soprano)
Lily Robson (soprano)
Richard Gowers, Mitchel Farquharson (organ)
The Choir of King’s College, London/Joseph Fort
rec. 2022, St Barnabas, Ealing, London
Texts & translations included
Delphian DCD34298 
Just recently, I welcomed a recording by Joseph Fort and The Choir of King’s College, London of Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil (review). I noted then that a disc of music by Kerensa Briggs was in the pipeline: here it is. I’ve heard and admired several individual pieces by her on recital discs by various choirs, but this is the first CD devoted entirely to her music. It’s a mild frustration that the composition date of each piece is not given in the booklet – nor on the composer’s own website – but I’ve been able to infer the date of a couple of the works featured here, and my assumption is that all the music was composed in the last few years.
Kerensa Briggs grew up in Gloucester where her father, the composer and virtuoso organist, David Briggs was Director of Music at the Cathedral between 1994 and 2002. As Rebecca Tavener puts it in her booklet essay, Ms Briggs “could hardly have enjoyed a more salubrious childhood, surrounded by music in the Gloucester Cathedral close, hearing the choral services, and singing in the Gloucester Cathedral Youth Choir which she describes as a huge influence”. Kerensa Briggs went on to read music at King’s College, London, where she sang as a choral scholar; that, I believe, would have been in the days when the choir was directed by the late David Trendell. It’s very fitting, therefore, that it should be the College’s present day choir that has made this disc of her music. Furthermore, we learn from the booklet that a couple of members of the choir sang with Ms Briggs in her student days and that Anita Monserrat, the mezzo soloist, is a former singing colleague of hers.
All the music featured here is recorded for the first time. The cornerstone of the programme is the Requiem which was premiered by the BBC Singers and David Hill, no less, on Armistice Day, 11 November 2022. The Requiem has nine movements and essentially follows the rubric of the Latin Mass for the Dead (part of one movement is in English). It’s scored for mezzo-soprano solo, SATB choir and organ. The music is suffused with the melodies of plainchant, which Briggs has taken as the springboard for her musical invention. As a very sweeping generalisation, there is certainly a French accent to the harmonies and to the lie of the melodic lines, though I wouldn’t say that the French influence is overdone. The independent organ part, here superbly played by Richard Gowers, is very important, even when the instrument is playing quietly; the colours that Briggs draws from the organ enhance the music significantly. The organ is silent in only one movement, the ‘Pie Jesu’. That lovely movement is distinguished by a beseeching mezzo solo line, supported by beautifully harmonised choral writing.
The mezzo solo part is crucial; indeed, the soloist is involved in every movement except two, the ‘Sanctus’ and the ‘Agnus Dei’. In Anita Monserrat we hear a singer who is ideally suited to the music. Her voice is well-focused, rich and round-toned and she sings with fine expressiveness. The part is wide-ranging in its compass and Ms Monserrat’s upper register is clear and clean while the lower reaches of her voice are very satisfying to hear. Her diction is excellent and I admired and enjoyed her accomplished singing. Her contributions are consistently good, but I was especially impressed with her impassioned singing in the ‘Libera me’ movement, beginning at ‘Tremens factus sum ego’. This movement is the most dramatic in the score: the writing is convincing and the choir, thrillingly supported by the organ, brings excitement to the music.
In complete contrast, the Sanctus, which is for choir and organ, is nimble and the textures are light and airy. The Agnus Dei is also for choir and organ, but here I understand the writing is for double choir The ‘Libera me’, already referenced, is a highly impressive movement; so too is the movement which precedes it: ‘I heard a voice from heaven – Lux aeterna’. Here, Ms Briggs combines Latin words from the Mass for the Dead and verses from the Book of Revelation in the King James Bible translation. It’s a short but very intense movement and I love the way the solo mezzo line frequently soars above the choir. Kerensa Briggs concludes her Requiem with ‘In Paradisum’. Here, the homophonic choral writing yet again uses plainchant as its basis. For the most part the organ provides subdued support. The music is consistently beautiful, not least at the very end where the mezzo and organ softly take their farewell of us.
Kerensa Briggs has written a wonderful setting of the Requiem. I haven’t previously heard a composition by her on such a large scale and I was seriously impressed with the quality, eloquence and sincerity of the piece. She responds very acutely to the words she has chosen to set and the result is that the Requiem is beautiful and affecting. She is superbly served by the performers on this first recording.
Chant has an influence on some of the other pieces which are included in this programme. I’ve been careful to say ‘chant’ because, as Rebecca Tavener points out, it’s Anglican chant, rather than plainchant, that is at the root of The Windsor Service. The canticles are so entitled because they were first sung by the combined choirs of two schools at a service in St George’s Chapel, Windsor. The scoring is for SSA choir and organ – here played by Mitchel Farquharson. You might hope that these forces would inspire music of light, airy textures and Kerensa Briggs does not disappoint. Both the ‘Mag’ and the ‘Nunc’ are attractive, engaging pieces. The ‘Nunc dimittis’ begins pensively, but Briggs seizes the opportunity provided by the words ‘to be a light to lighten the gentiles’ to write a brief but radiant climax. Both canticles end with a chant-like ‘Glory be’ that gives way to an ethereally lovely ‘Amen’. Both the ‘Magnificat’ and the ‘Nunc dimittis’ feature very good soprano solos from Lily Robson.
Plainchant is very much the inspiration for the organ solo, Prelude on ‘Pange Lingua’, which is played by Richard Gowers. This piece was commissioned by the inspirational young organist Anna Lapwood for inclusion in a volume of chant-inspired organ works entitled Gregoriana. I liked this very much. Reflective, quiet musing on the familiar plainchant melody encase a central, richly-textured climax.
The final two works on the programme are for unaccompanied choir. Inner Light is the only choral piece in which a non-Christian text is set. Instead, Briggs turned to the spirituality of lines from the Chinese Classical philosophical text Tao Te Ching, which is thought to date from around 400 BC. She sets the words in English translation. The music, which is laid out for SATB choir, is full of warmth and reassurance. Finally comes I will lift up mine eyes, words which have been set by Herbert Howells and many others. Kerensa Briggs’ response to the text is a piece for eight-part SATB choir. The homophonic writing is very beautiful. I noticed that almost every time the words ‘I will lift up my eyes’ occur there’s strength in the music, suggesting determination as well as loveliness. This is a marvellous piece. At the time the booklet essay was written it had yet to achieve a live premiere but that surely can’t be long delayed. Indeed, I would expect this piece to become very popular amongst accomplished choirs.
I enjoyed this disc very much indeed. It confirms the high opinion of Kerensa Briggs music that I’d obtained from previous individual pieces by her that have come my way. Though I’m impressed with everything here, I believe that the Requiem and I will lift up mine eyes are particularly fine. I hope that the music will receive a higher profile through this recording, leading to other choirs taking it up. I read with interest in the booklet that she is currently enjoying a three-year residency with the Saint Louis Chamber Chorus. I’ve encountered this excellent US choir on a number of discs; they and their British conductor, Philip Barnes are great advocates for the music of living composers so this residency should be very fruitful for Kerensa Briggs.
The composer could scarcely have wished for better advocacy for her music. Anita Monserrat is a very impressive soloist in the Requiem and both organists offer highly accomplished playing. Joseph Fort has prepared the King’s College London choir with great thoroughness and they sing all this music with commitment and skill. They have been beautifully recorded by Paul Baxter in the sympathetic acoustic of St Barnabas Church, Ealing.
Rebecca Tavener’s booklet essay offers a valuable introduction to both Kerensa Briggs and her music. Towards the end of her essay, she says this: “It seems that today’s generation of female composers are shedding the shackles of gender discrimination: is there still a glass ceiling?” I hope that this CD is sufficient answer to that question. Through the efforts of many organisations, including the BBC and a number of our UK collegiate choirs, as well as ensembles in many other countries, I have the distinct impression that female composers of today are getting many more performance opportunities that was the case even thirty years ago. Furthermore, the music of female composers of the past such as Amy Beach, Lily Boulanger Louise Farrenc and Charlotte Sohy, is now receiving proper due through performances, broadcasts and recordings. I’m certain that absolutely no gender allowance needs to be made for Kerensa Briggs; this disc proves that the quality of her music justifies its place in the repertoire by right.
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