Briggs Hail, gladdening Light Hyperion

David Briggs (b. 1962)
Hail, gladdening Light
David Briggs (organ solo)
The Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge/Stephen Layton
Harrison Cole, Jonathan Lee (organ)
rec. 2022, Church of Saint-Eustache, Paris
Texts & English translations included
Hyperion CDA68440 [62]

In 2009, Stephen Layton and the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge teamed up with David Briggs to record a CD of music by Briggs, who also contributed to the programme some organ improvisations – something for which he’s renowned (review). I was delighted to discover that for one of his very last recordings with the Trinity choir, Layton has recorded a second such disc in alliance with David Briggs. The previous CD was recorded in Gloucester Cathedral where Briggs was Director of Music from 1994 until 2002. I was amused to recall that I described much of the music on the programme as “a kind of musical entente cordiale, marrying very successfully the English choral tradition with that of French church music” because for this new recording Layton has taken his team across the Channel to the Church of Saint-Eustache, Paris. This substantial church is situated in the Les Halles district of Paris; it was constructed between 1532 and 1632.  Of particular relevance to the present recording, the church boasts a magnificent organ which was rebuilt in 1989 under the direction of Jean Guillou who was Organiste titulaire of Saint-Eustache between 1963 and 2015.  

David Briggs and Stephen Layton go back a long way: both were Organ Scholars at King’s College, Cambridge, though they didn’t quite overlap. As Joseph Fort points out in his booklet essay, Briggs held the post from 1981 to 1984 while Layton’s tenure was between 1985 and 1988. Briggs has an international reputation as an improviser; one thing – of many – which I learned from Joseph Fort is that Layton also has a strong pedigree as an improvisor. Fort’s essay is excellent and I have drawn on it quite a bit for the purposes of this review. 

The programme has been carefully constructed. In particular and as we shall see, the four organ improvisations have been strategically placed within the order of the music. Consequently, it makes sense to comment on the pieces as they appear in the running order.

The programme is bookended by two pieces that Briggs wrote in 2010 for St David’s Cathedral in Wales. The Te Deumis an arresting opener. For the most part, this is a joyful and exciting setting, though once or twice the music is briefly in a calmer vein. The writing for both choir (SATB divisi) and organ is thrilling; the Trinity singers and organist Jonathan Lee seize the opportunity. Already in this performance one is conscious of the large, reverberant acoustic of Saint-Eustache; this will play a big (and wholly beneficial) role in the proceedings throughout this disc.  David Briggs takes to the console for the first improvisation, ‘Prelude’. Joseph Fort explains how in technical terms this acts as a subtle bridge between the Te Deum and the next choral piece. The improvisation begins quietly and darkly in the organ’s lowest reaches. Gradually, Briggs builds to a towering deployment of the full organ (at around 2;40) after which the music gradually recedes into the depths from which it arose. 

Set me as a seal for unaccompanied SATB choir was written as a wedding gift for two close friends. Apparently, it was composed in a single morning, yet there is no sense of haste. The music is beautiful and slow-paced. However, even though the tempo may be slow I sense urgency in the music – urgency not of tempo but of mood. The conclusion is especially rapt and Joseph Fort tells us that here Briggs writes in the key of F# major, the same key in which Messiaen wrote his gorgeous O sacrum convivium. By coincidence (or is it?) the earlier piece God be in my head inhabits the same key of F#. This time, the choir has the accompaniment of a lovely but discreet organ part. This little prayer is set thoughtfully to music that has a definite devotional air to it.

The following improvisation is ‘Intermezzo’. Here, Joseph Fort identifies a similarity to the plainchant Ave maris stellain the thematic material. Good use is made of flute stops to give the music a bubbling character. Briggs’ playing has a wonderfully light touch and his invention seems to me to be playful yet pensive at the same time. I hope I’m not wrong in identifying a French accent to the music.  

Surrexit Dominus was written for the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge in 2011. The piece explodes out of the blocks with a tremendous organ introduction. The choral contribution is the traditional plainchant melody, intoned by the male voices and then taken up by the full choir. After the ‘Gloria Patri’ Briggs achieves something of a coup with a thunderous, quasi-improvisatory organ solo which makes virtuoso demands on the organist (Harrison Cole). After this, the choir brings the piece to an ecstatic close. Immediately, Briggs himself improvises on Surrexit Dominus. If I use the word spectacular, I fear I would be underselling what we hear. Briggs takes the excitement generated in the choral piece to an even higher plane. The pedal division of the Saint-Eustache organ provides a massive foundation while all the display work is done on the manuals. This is a tumultuous few minutes of organ playing. Goodness knows what it must have sounded like in the church itself; I suspect the whole building was flooded with sound. This is one of the most thrilling organ recordings I’ve heard in a long time.

Good contrast is provided by Hail, gladdening Light  an anthem for unaccompanied double SATB choir. The recording differentiates nicely between the twin choirs. In his writing, Briggs makes excellent use of dynamic contrast, most notably at the hushed rapture of ‘Now we are come to the sun’s hour of rest’. The setting blends joyful ecstasy and passages where the harmonies are mysterious. The resonant acoustic means that the harmonies have a most becoming aura to them.    

I don’t know if Vexilla regis was intended as a companion piece to Surrexit Dominus but it too was composed in 2011 for the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, so it seems distinctly possible. The design of Vexilla regis is rather different. Three verses of the hymn are set, a cappella, to a plainchant melody for varying unison voices: the tenors and basses sing verse one, the upper voices have verse two and the whole choir unites for verse three. After each verse come short organ interludes which take the form of a meditation on the chant melody. Finally, choir and organ come together for the concluding gentle ‘Amen’. This is a most effective piece. 

Briggs wrote Ubi caritas et amor for his own wedding. The scoring is for SATB and organ. The writing for both the choir and the organ features rich harmonies and there’s a lovely melodic basis to the piece. The music is rapt and, as I listened, I had the impression of seeing light refracted through coloured stained glass.      

David Briggs has composed two sets of Evening Canticles for the Choir of Trinity College. The first set dates from 2008 and it was included on the aforementioned previous disc of Briggs’ music. In 2020 Stephen Layton invited him to compose another ‘Mag’ and ‘Nunc’ and requested that these should be composed in the fauxbourdon style; that is to say with plainchant verses alternating with polyphonic passages. Here, the plainchant is sung by a solo bass, Florian Störtz. He’s excellent; his voice is firmly and clearly projected. The polyphonic verses are elaborate, not least in terms of the richly imagined harmonies. As I remarked of Hail, gladdening Light, this is another instance where the acoustic of Saint-Eustache puts a welcome aura round the music.

The final improvisation, ‘Cantabile’ is, Joseph Fort tells us, an example of ‘tierce’ organ music, where the melody is in the tenor register and the specific combination of stops includes the ‘tierce’ stop. Briggs’ improvisation is very interesting and the music seems to me to act as a kind of sorbet before the final piece on the programme.

To conclude, we’re taken back to St David’s for Briggs’ setting of the Te Deum. As was the case with Jubilate Deo this again features a virtuoso organ part in which, this time, it’s Harrison Cole who makes as strong an impression as did Jonathan Lee right at the start of the programme. The choral writing is no less demanding. I like the way that Briggs varies the music according to the text. Thus, for example, the opening is explosive, yet by contrast when the choir sings ‘We believe that thou shalt come to be our Judge’ the phrase I’ve written in my notes to describe the music is ‘hushed humility’. At the very end of this enormously impressive setting, choir and organ raise the roof at ‘O Lord, in thee have I trusted: let me never be confounded’. But this is the composition of an organist and Briggs can’t resist letting his own instrument have the last word in a short but spectacular organ postlude.

This is a splendid album. As was the case in the previous collaboration between David Briggs and the Trinity College choir, Briggs is confirmed as an exciting composer for voices and for voices and organ. And his music is exciting not just when all the stops are pulled out (apologies for the pun!) but also in the quiet, reflective pieces. Here. he also treats us to several examples of his skill and flair as a virtuoso improvisor on the organ (I shan’t forget in a hurry the way in which he improvises on Surrexit Dominus). His music clearly sets considerable challenges to the singers but the Choir of Trinity College is equal to every demand and, energised by Stephen Layton, produces superb performances. Nor are the College’s Organ Scholars, Harrison Cole and Jonathan Lee, overawed by the presence of one of the world’s leading organists; both of them play marvellously, seizing opportunities to display virtuosity but, at other times, playing with great sensitivity. 

Recording in the spacious acoustic of the Church of Saint-Eustache must have presented significant challenges to engineer David Hinitt but he has been thrillingly successful. The sound of the organ has terrific presence and impact and the choir comes across clearly even when the mighty organ is at full tilt. As I’ve commented earlier, the acoustic has been used expertly to impart an aura yet never at the expense of clarity.

Joseph Fort’s booklet essay is ideal; he’s an expert guide to the music.

This is a memorable disc.

John Quinn

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Jubilate Deo, ‘St Davids Service’ (2010)
Prelude (organ improvisation)
Set me as a seal (2011)
God be in my head (2005)
Intermezzo (organ improvisation)
Surrexit Dominus (2011)
Toccata on Surrexit Dominus (organ improvisation)
Hail, gladdening Light (2013)
Vexilla regis (2011)
Ubi caritas et amor (2004)
The Trinity College Fauxbourdon Service (2020)
Nunc dimittis
Cantabile (organ improvisation)
Te Deum ‘St Davids Service’ (2010)