SYMPHONIES, STOPS AND SWELL BOXES
Why should orchestras have all the fun? David Briggs tells John Allison about transcribing Mahler for organ
BACK IN THE DAYS when David Briggs was an organ scholar at King’s College, Cambridge, organ transcriptions were considered to be anything but (to mix ecumenical metaphors) kosher. The idea, especially, of anyone playing symphonies by Mahler – himself forced to live a life of ecumenical muddle – on the organ would have been baulked at for any number of reasons, but a lot has changed since the early 1980s, even in the organ world. Today, with performance history and reception being more respectable subjects of musicological study than music itself, transcriptions are accepted as part of our musical heritage.
All the same, when Briggs says that he devotes around a third of his career to playing transcriptions, he is not harking back to the days of woolly old townhall Wagner. He has been on the vanguard of creating a ‘new’ repertoire for the organ, extending soundworlds that were opened up by the organsymphonic works of Louis Vierne and others. But might Mahler not still seem an unlikely candidate, especially when Briggs could be giving us the big organ work that great organist Bruckner never composed?
‘Well, alongside many other composers’ music I have transcribed Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, and it sounds magnificent on the organ. But I like the raw material of Mahler. His music is more volatile, with wild swings of mood and no façade – we find ourselves almost looking straight into his eyes.’
Indeed, Briggs was bitten by the Mahler bug early on when, as leader of the violas in the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, he played the Fifth Symphony under Charles Groves in 1979. ‘I learnt it from within,’ he says, ‘and it affected me so deeply I couldn’t sleep. The reason I later started to make these transcriptions is that I wanted to play this music on my own instrument.’ These days, Briggs could be described as something of a Mahler obsessive, who has immersed himself in the composer’s world and goes back to the sketches whenever he transcribes his music.
‘I’m not trying to imitate the orchestra – the music has to have its own integrity. Mahler himself was always changing his music. He was a pragmatist, who said to the conductor Bruno Walter, “If you’re on the rostrum and something isn’t working, it’s your job to change it”. So I feel I have to recast everything in a way, using unconventional or at least non-literal registrations that bring the music off the page. If everything becomes too complex, you lose the impetus.’
It’s almost 20 years since Briggs began his Mahlerian adventure by transcribing the
Fifth Symphony, and now he has tackled all the symphonies except the First and Ninth. Playing an instrument that for better or worse is associated with religion, he has tapped deeply – perhaps nowhere more than in the Andante of the Sixth, under his hands and feet a profound meditation – into Mahler’s universal spirituality.
David Briggs’s transcriptions of Mahler’s Symphonies Nos 2 & 8 are reviewed on p82
‘I like the raw material of Mahler,’ says David Briggs