David Briggs is one of the world’s finest organists, but has recently been making his name with transcriptions of Mahler and Elgar Symphonies. Oliver Condy talks to him about the challenges of recreating the sound of an orchestra on a pipe organ.
As an organist, where has your love of the big Romantic orchestral masterpieces come from?
Music from the 19th and 20th century has been my main passion since I was a teenager. In 1981, I lead the violas in the National Youth Orchestra – it was a very formative and wonderful experience learning these these great pieces from the inside out: Mahler 5, Stravinsky’s Firebird, Ravel’s Daphnis; and we had some incredible conductors like Kirill Kondrashin, Simon Rattle, Charles Dutoit and Charles Groves. There was a time just when I was leaving school when I thought of maybe becoming an orchestral player.
But then the organ took over, presumably… You were organ scholar of King’s College, Cambridge – did you do transcriptions while you were there?
Not so much – I think the first piece piece I first transcribed was the finale of the Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony, from the big C major chord of the final movement onwards – I had an email from somebody the other day who said he actually preferred it without the orchestra!
And then you moved on to Mahler?
I transcribed Mahler 5 in 1997 and recorded that in 1998 and played it at the Three Choirs Festival. It was rather amusing because the Philharmonia was in residence at the Three Choirs and they all came and listen to it. And then Jim Clarke, the orchestra’s leader, said: ‘That was great, but I don’t think you’ll be putting us out of business!’
Have you made any changes to your Mahler Symphony No. 5 transcription since then?
Just some of the layout, particularly in the Scherzo, which is the hardest movement to play. I have made quite a few amendments to make it more compelling and to make it lie under the hands slightly easier. You do have to make some modifications and you do have to realise that one person can’t play what 90 people can play. Some things have to be left to illusion. But, as the great French organist Pierre Cochereau used to say, what would life be worth if we didn’t have illusions?
Does Mahler lend itself well to transcription?
I think I think he really does, yes. The Sixth is particularly good I think because actually it's possible to transcribe most of it. It’s interesting looking at Mahler’s sketches – it’s actually not that complicated, in terms of the raw product. What makes Mahler so extraordinary is the way he orchestrated, and in transcription there are two things that are paramount: first of all not feeling that you absolutely have to play every single note, and the registration, the way you manipulate the stops is really crucial to a successful performance of a transcription. The whole performance depends very much on the way that you set up the instrument and reincarnate the piece. The intention is not to try and emulate the orchestra, but to make a really good organ piece.
How do you approach a transcription from the start? Do you make a basic piano reduction first or do you go straight to the organ?
Straight to the organ. I did Elgar Symphonies Nos 1 & 2 in the last three years and I’m just about to record those. In Elgar 1, the orchestral soundscape is wide, from top to bottom, so having the ability to include a pedal part makes it easier than playing it on the piano – you need three hands to play Sigfrid Karg-Elert’s piano transcription!
People used to need organ transcriptions simply to hear the great masterpieces in their home towns, but now that everyone has access to orchestras, either locally or on the radio or TV, what’s the purpose of an organ transcription?
I think it’s to gain an understanding about the music and to see it in a new light. Mahler was making arrangements of other people’s music all the time, reorchestrating Schumann and Beethoven. I just love the sound of great symphonic frescoes on a great Romantic organ.
So what’s your next Mahler project?
Well, I’ve been commissioned to transcribe Mahler’s Second Symphony which is going to be first performed next spring in St John the Divine in New York. The organ was restored three years ago – it’s really a fantastic venue and I think the music will be very powerful in that environment. It’s going take about a good three months to transcribe, but it’s a piece that I’ve loved for 30 years. I’m really excited to replicate it on the organ.
David Brigg’s transcription of Mahler’s Symphony No. 6, performed at St Katharinen, Oppenheim, is out now on Chestnut (Chestnut 008)