About this Recording
8.573111 - FILSELL, J. / BRIGGS, D.: Choral Music (Vasari Singers, Backhouse)

David Briggs (b. 1962) • Jeremy Filsell (b. 1964)
Choral Music


The concept behind this recording was to bring together two of the finest British organist/composers to showcase not only the sheer brilliance of their playing, but also the breadth and depth of their creativity as experienced choral composers. Both Jeremy Filsell (with whom we have been delighted and privileged to work on many occasions in the past) and David Briggs (this was our first collaboration, but not the last, I hope) now work abroad (Jeremy in Washington, David in Toronto), but both are internationally renowned recitalists, much in demand. We were thrilled therefore that both were able to join Vasari to accompany their respective pieces and to give us invaluable insight into the three works we commissioned from them especially for this recording, as well as their other existing works. The recording weekend was full of excitement and creative frisson and I hope the listener will pick up on the musical magic that these collaborations generated.

Jeremy Backhouse

Note by Jeremy Filsell

I am privileged to have my music paired on this disc with that of David Briggs, one whose musicianship I have admired and revered since our schoolboy years in the English Midlands. That our career paths have crisscrossed over the years has been a source of great delight and inspiration, and that they do so again under these current circumstances is wonderfully fortuitous.

My own choral works unashamedly reflect utility above any artful search for fresh expressive musical utterance. As such, I am aware that they reflect more closely the stylistic language of music that has touched and influenced me than form any innovative musical language. Throughout my career, I have been involved in one capacity or another with the world of church music and my choral works thus embody the ‘church musician at work’. They are, I suspect, rooted in the long-standing tradition of organists and/or choir directors writing for their own singers and colleagues, where liturgical offerings have proved apt for the fabric, traditions and musical style of respective establishments. Notable, however, is that fate often deals unkindly with music of this nature—indeed much of the copious Victorian fare of this kind is now justly—or unjustly, depending on the tint of one’s spectacles—neglected.

My music has been written for, amongst others, Holy Trinity Coventry, Ely Cathedral, Washington National Cathedral and the various London churches I have served, but for over ten years I was privileged to be associated with St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, a time from which much of the music on this recording dates.

Within the Anglican/Episcopal church, the morning canticle settings are amongst the musical losses consequent to the church’s abandoning of sung morning prayer in favour of sacramental Eucharistic worship week by week. I grew up as a chorister singing both Matins and Eucharist on a Sunday morning; a liturgical sequence now largely extinct. At St George’s Chapel, however, the primary worship on a Sunday remains that of Morning Prayer (for which it may be unique).

Two pieces form the Vasari commission (2012) for this disc. The true genesis of the first, Tomorrow shall be my dancing day, owes much to a good friend in Washington who often sang, in idle moments, the chorus phrases of this well-known carol—a kind of personal leitmotif. In one of these idle moments, a new motif of the refrain came to mind, and I wondered whether there might be something new and vibrant to be done with this ‘olde’ text.

The touching text of the second, Epitaph (Here shadow lie), was discovered on the majestic Tanfield tomb within Burford church in the heart of the English Cotswolds. Born in 1554, the Eton-educated Lord (Sir Lawrence) Tanfield was an ambitious lawyer who rose to become Chief Baron of the Exchequer to James I in 1607. He had acquired Burford Priory in 1586 but became known for his harsh treatment of tenants on the land. Petitions brought against him reputedly moved his second wife to “play the devil” among the villagers of Great Tew, and to “grind them to powder”: Nice lady. Tanfield died in 1625, and instructions in his will were to dispose of his worldly goods “whereof God has bestowed upon me a plentiful heart”. On his grand tomb, erected in Burford church, his widow left this poignant epitaph. The loving intimacy of her timeless words are offered here in a harmonically static but prayerful setting for a cappella double choir.

The anthem for choir and organ, If God build not the house, dates from 2006 and was a commission by Andrew Carter to mark the 40th anniversary of St George’s House, the Conference Centre within the walls of Windsor Castle. The dedication is also to Timothy Byram-Wigfield (Director of Music 2004–2013) and the choir of St George’s Chapel, who first performed the work during Evensong on 5 June 2006. The anthem’s principal text is drawn from the words of Phineas Fletcher (1582–1650) whilst the central section takes verses from Psalm 25 (verses 4 and 5). Often rhythmically quirky and metrically unsettled, the piece features a virtuoso organ part, expertly handled in the first performance by the brilliant young 18-year-old Windsor organ scholar at the time, Peter Stevens.

The Windsor Evening Canticles Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (2001), complete a sense of book-ends with the morning set, and the Gloria Patri music shares material first heard in the Jubilate (the final perorations recalling a motif—and indeed a final chord—in deliberate homage to evening canticles which ought to be staple fare in most cathedrals: Sebastian Forbes’s Aedis Christi).

The Transfiguration (2011) was written for Cathedral Voices, the volunteer choir at Washington National Cathedral that I was privileged to direct at the time. Finding appropriate repertoire for this liturgical feast having proved difficult, in time-honoured fashion, I wrote something myself. The texts were taken from the gospels of Mark and John, the music aiming to reflect the allegorical themes of light and spiritual metamorphosis. Again, the organ part is granted the lion’s share of colourful interjection and the piece’s first performance profited from the great skill of Scott Dettra at the National Cathedral organ.

The writing of my Te Deum and Jubilate (2001) was a response to a request—admittedly a light-hearted throwing-down-of-the-gauntlet—by the inspirational Jonathan Rees-Williams, then Director of Music, for more ‘home-grown’ material. Given the demand for morning canticles at Windsor, the idea of writing some seemed apt. Being directly conscious of the connections to monarchy, ceremony and the courtly traditions upheld at Windsor, I failed to banish from my mind William Walton’s glorious Coronation Te Deum, and my own setting thus attempts to recreate its spirit. There are motivic references which will be obvious to those aware of the ‘parent’ work; the objective here, however, was primarily to set the (somewhat lengthy) text as concisely as possible. Brief reference is made at one point to Herbert Howells’ beautiful Windsor Benedictus setting (the morning canticle traditionally replacing the Te Deum during penitential time). The height of this music’s prominence came when, humblingly, it was chosen to be sung before the Queen, Royal Family and various Knights of the Realm at the Garter Day service in 2002. The companion setting of the Jubilate aimed for brevity, and it was my good friend and colleague Nigel Short who pointed out the thematic references (subliminally assumed) to Graham Whettam’s thrilling Coventry Service Magnificat.

Note by David Briggs

It is an honour to share this recording with my colleague and friend for more than 35 years, Jeremy Filsell. We both grew up in the West Midlands and were both nurtured and inspired by the wonderful organ in Coventry Cathedral, perhaps the finest instrument ever built by Harrison and Harrison. We participated in competitions together, performed in organ festivals (including at Lahti, Finland, where, if memory serves me correctly, we both performed on an Allen Computer organ on a pontoon in the middle of a lake). We both spent many, many hours in the reconstruction of many of the greatest improvisations of Pierre Cochereau, the Organist at Notre-Dame de Paris (1955–84), and both ended up living in North America, pursuing our separate liturgical and concert careers. I have a huge admiration for Jeremy’s innate musicianship, and this recording also serves to demonstrate his considerable prowess as a composer.

I have often had conversations with composers about work ethic and the speed and psychology of the creative process. Since I began composing in 1990 (at the relatively late age of 28), I have always worked fast and rather impulsively, for better or worse. I have always loved to improvise and this undoubtedly impacts my creative urge when it comes to composition. I was delighted to be commissioned to write a new Pange lingua for Vasari Singers and most of this piece was written at 38,000ft on an American Airlines Boeing 767, en route from London to Boston, in September 2012. The piece sets out to portray in musical terms the wonder of the sacrament of Holy Communion, where Christ’s flesh and blood become available to all believers. It is for others to analyse and comment, but I would say that this piece is one of my favourite creations, especially when sung, a cappella, with such refinement and expertise as shown by Vasari Singers. My organ improvisation on Tantum ergo followed naturally from this commission (Tantum ergo being the opening words of the last two stanzas of Pange lingua).

The Messe pour Saint-Sulpice was written in 2011 and was jointly commissioned by the choirs of All Saints’ Parish Church, Northampton (Lee Dunleavy, Director of Music) and the Cathedral of the Redeemer, Calgary, Alberta (The Very Reverend Leighton Lee, Dean, and Timothy Pyper, Director of Music). Scored for Grand Orgue, Orgue de Choeur and Choir SATB, this music is inspired by the huge acoustic of St Sulpice, Paris, where the Northampton Choir gave the first performance in July 2011. The Grand Orgue is one of the most supreme instruments to be built by Aristide Cavaille-Coll and dates from 1862. On this recording, the magnificent Marcussen organ of Tonbridge School takes its place—deliciously suave, Swedish and refined, but here with a believable French accent, saturated in not a little garlic. Despite the original conception for two organs, the Mass can very easily be performed with one organ and choir. This is intentionally ‘big-building music’, with an emphasis on the dramatic effect and the grandiose (introduction to the Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus etc). Here, however, are also moments of quiet, emotional profundity (Agnus Dei) and intimate serenity (Benedictus qui venit). I feel very fortunate indeed to have had my music recorded by the fabulous Vasari Singers, under the inspired direction of their founder and Music Director, Jeremy Backhouse.

Vasari Singers gratefully acknowledges the support of the BBC Performing Arts Fund and the RVW Trust in commissioning new works from David Briggs and Jeremy Filsell and this recording.

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