Why should or­ches­tras have all the fun? David Briggs tells John Al­li­son about tran­scrib­ing Mahler for or­gan

BBC Music Magazine - - FEATURE -

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

ma­jes­tic man­u­als: ‘I like the raw ma­te­rial of Mahler,’ says David Briggs

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