MusicWeb International, April 2014

This lovely CD was not at all what I expected. The image I had of church music was of a genre that is conventional and safe. Neither composer represented here falls into place on either count. I suspect many a church choir would see these pieces as very challenging.

The scene is set with Filsell’s Tomorrow shall be my dancing day which is lively and thoroughly entertaining and makes it obvious that the Vasari Singers are a very classy group indeed. The Epitaph which follows is also enjoyable and musically interesting including some lovely effects for double chorus. If God build not the house is again lively and has a positively triumphant opening. The organ part is not for the fainthearted. Here it is in safe hands, those of the composer himself, who is a virtuoso organist of the highest standard. The prayerful central section tickles the ear with unexpected harmonies. This is a big piece in every respect except length: it has a real sense of structure as well as scale. The ending is appropriately quiet and contemplative, setting the words ‘And draw the curtain to his sleep’. The registrations chosen by Filsell on the organ in quiet passages draw attention to the first class engineering of this spacious and true stereo recording: I say true because it sounds believable and accurate, high praise coming from me. Filsell’s canticle Magnificatis the first of four selections from his so called Windsor Service, and includes a highly ornamented organ part. One cannot but note the composer’s sensitivity to the words and he varies the music substantially given its short duration of less than five minutes. The canticle Nunc Dimittis treads slowly from quiet to loud music, again with extensive ornamentation in the organ part. The ending is triumphant. The Transfiguration is mostly slow music punctuated by a mixture of decorative figurations and dramatic outbursts from the organ. The biggest of Filsell’s pieces on this disc is the Te Deum. In this and the following Jubilate the composer aims for brevity and in common with the preceding pair of canticles the organ indulges in yet more decorative ornamentation. There are a lot of words to fit into a mere nine and a half minutes – think how long Berlioz and Bruckner took – but it never sounds rushed. Again Filsell displays much skill and imagination in reflecting the meaning of the words and uses the full dynamic range of these thirty excellent voices. The Jubilate contains appropriately joyful sounds from singers and organ ending with haloes of sound.

Briggs is no less absorbing a creative artist. The Pange lingua is a cappella, a commission from these singers. The crunching opening chord makes one really sit up. A beautiful, lyrical outpouring follows making many demands on the singers. The linked organ improvisation is serenely beautiful. The final work is also the most substantial. Briggs’ Missa pour Saint-Sulpice is almost twenty-seven minutes long: a big work with grand gestures but also much uncertainty. To my ears this music is not a confident expression of faith but a quest for understanding. The Kyrie is introduced by the organ with the choral appeals for mercy expressed quietly, quite unlike many mass settings. The Gloria proper, after theintonation, is introduced by the organ – and I should note that here too the organist is the composer, like Filsell, Briggs is a superb musician with a reputation to match. The Et in terra pax is a rather serious first statement before a big choral outburst on Laudamus te. Domine Deus is more pensive than confident. Again like Filsell, Briggs is very aware of the words and has a definite take on the meaning. The music grows more impassioned towards the Quoniam which is impressive and tense. The four lines of theSanctus text move carefully from muted praise towards a single cry of ‘Hosanna in Excelsis.’ This shows remarkable restraint when one considers how many ‘Hosannas’ get multiple repetitions elsewhere in the choral literature. This is a clever compositional ploy injecting a different feeling into the words. TheBenedictus is quiet and contemplative with a muted second Hosanna not at all like Bach or Vivaldi. TheAgnus Dei is very obviously an appeal for mercy: it grows in intensity through repetition and finally subsides to the last call for peace. Here Briggs gives the high voices a striking line to close the work.

I enjoyed this disc enormously and would urge music-lovers to buy it at once and wash away their preconceptions. I can’t say what it will do for their sins but it will grace their listening time.

David Billinge

American Record Guide, March 2014

The Vasaris are one of the Sceptered Isle’s better chamber choirs and sound like it in these spirited but elegant performances. The organ playing is stylish and colorful…Naxos clinches the deal with excellent sonics and a booklet with notes, texts, and an English translation of the Mass.

Edward Greenfield

Classical Music Sentinel, January 2014

Highly recommended

This new recording presents fresh new choral works by two of today’s best composers in the field of liturgical music from the current generation of British composers, Jeremy Filsell (b. 1964) and David Briggs (b. 1962). Except for one, all of the pieces on this CD are world première recordings, which in itself adds considerable value to this release. A previous review of mine for another Mass by David Briggs (reviewed here), serves as a very strong indication of what style of music you will hear on this new disc. Both composers share an affinity with the great Renaissance masters, in that they infuse their music with a sense of mystery and awe, but do it by using a completely different palette of harmonic colours. And it’s when they paint outside the lines that they create the best effects and music of breathtaking beauty. The Filsell Nunc Dimittis and the Briggs Agnus Dei for example, both attain expressive emotional depths without having to resort to cliché gestures or trendy tricks. Solid, logically worked out music with a beating heart.

Both composers supply the role of organist in their respective works, which adds authenticity to the score, and the Vasari Singers under the direction of Jeremy Backhouse, certainly inject great fervour and expressive power within the music and in doing so, lift it off the printed page and bring it to life. Highly recommended for choral music fans looking for something new.

Jean-Yves Duperron

Denton’s Review Corner, November 2013

Mighty impressive

Bringing together choral music by two of the most outstanding composers born in Britain and who share that life with a major career as church and concert organists. Much of [Jeremy Filsell’s] contribution to the disc comes in four pieces originally written for use in St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle…the extensive Te Deum from the Windsor Service being particularly impressive. The harmonies in the music of David Briggs is of a more modern tonality. His major part of the disc was inspired by Saint Sulpice in Paris where the first performance was given in 2011. Scored for ‘Grand Orgue, Orgue de Choeur, and four part Choir’ it is a score where the moments of intense beauty are rather more memorable than the climatic moments in the Gloria. The disc is completed with a 2012 piece, Pange lingua, composed for the Vasari Singers, and an organ improvisation on the last two stanzas. With both composers involved as the organists in their respective works, and the singing of the British based Vasari Singers sounding mighty impressive, we must take these excellently recorded performances as benchmarks. © 2013 David’s Review Corner


MusicWeb International, October 2013

A very fine disc indeed

This enterprising disc showcases the talents of two of the foremost organists of the current generation. Both Jeremy Filsell and David Briggs, who are almost exact contemporaries and have been friends and colleagues for many years, have attracted widespread acclaim as organists – and, in Filsell’s case, as a pianist. However as this programme demonstrates, both of them are fine composers as well as performers. Both are now based in North America, Filsell in Washington D.C. and Briggs in Toronto. The Vasari Singers have had the very happy idea of bringing the two of them together for this project, commissioning them to write music for this disc and inviting each to accompany their respective pieces on the organ.

The recordings were made during what must have been a pretty busy and exciting weekend in the chapel of Tonbridge School in Kent. That’s one of the Vasari Singers’ favourite recording locations. We know from previous discs that one of its attractions is the Marcussen organ, which was built in 1995, I believe. The instrument was equal to the prodigious demands of Francis Pott’s The Cloud of Unknowing, which the Vasaris and Filsell recorded there a few years ago (review) and its credentials are endorsed in the Naxos booklet by David Briggs, who rates the instrument as “magnificent” and describes it as “deliciously suave, Swedish and refined, but here with a believable French accent, saturated in not a little garlic.” The organ, superbly captured by the recording team of Adrian Peacock and William Brown, makes a stellar contribution to this programme: only on two tracks is it silent.

Jeremy Filsell somewhat modestly describes his choral pieces as music that “embod[ies] the church musician at work’”. Don’t be led by that statement to underestimate the selection of his music that is presented here for these pieces are of genuine substance – firmly and productively rooted in the traditions of the music of the English church. Several of them were composed during the decade that Filsell spent as an alto lay clerk in the choir of St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle before he moved to the USA in 2008. Indeed, the Windsor Service was written specifically for that choir. These canticles are impressive. There’s much vivid and dramatic music, both for choir and organ, in the Magnificat though there’s a slower, more reflective section at ‘He remembering His mercy’, where the organ falls silent. The Nunc Dimittis begins in a mood of quiet prayerfulness, the tempo slow, but at ‘To be a light to lighten the Gentiles’ the music becomes powerful and majestic in a most imposing fashion. Perhaps the most commanding of these four Windsor Canticles is the Te Deum. When I first listened to the disc I hadn’t read the notes and I was struck by the similarity between the opening of Filsell’s setting and Walton’s Coronation Te Deum. When later I read his notes I read his comment that he had “failed to banish” Walton’s setting from his mind. Well, if you’re going to have a model for a Te Deum Walton’s magnificent setting is not a bad precedent. In truth, though Waltonian fingerprints are all over the opening and reappear at ‘We believe that Thou shalt come to be our Judge’, Filsell goes his own way for most of the piece. Not surprisingly, there’s an excitingly virtuosic organ part and it sounds to me as if the choral parts must be exhilarating to sing, especially as the mood of the music frequently changes to match the sentiments of the text. This is a tremendous setting and it’s thrillingly performed here.

Jeremy Filsell has written not one but two pieces for this programme. Tomorrow shall be my dancing day is mainly joyful and light on its feet though there’s a slower, more thoughtful section at ‘In a manger laid and wrapped I was.’ This is an effective and enjoyable piece. Epitaph (Here shadow lie) [yes. shadow] offers a strong contrast. It’s an a cappella setting of a seventeenth century epitaph. Filsell describes this as “harmonically static but prayerful”. The harmonies may be as he describes them but the harmonic language is anything but uninteresting. He’s composed a lovely piece and the Vasari Singers make a splendid job of it.

I heard some pieces by David Briggs during his time as Director of Music at Gloucester Cathedral (1994-2002) and my most recent encounter with his music came in the shape of the very fine Hyperion disc by Trinity College, Cambridge (review). That CD had as its centrepiece the thrilling Messe de Notre Dame (2002). The Mass setting on this new disc is also named after an important Parisian church, Saint-Sulpice. It was an Anglo-Canadian commission which was inspired, Briggs tells us, by the huge acoustic of that church, which is where it was first performed. Though he doesn’t say so I wonder if the Mass is also a homage to the great French organist, Louis Vierne, who was assistant organist (to his teacher, Widor) at the church in the last few years of the nineteenth century. Vierne’s excellent Messe solenelle in C sharp minor, which Briggs recorded during his time at Gloucester, was composed during Vierne’s time at Saint-Sulpice. Like the Vierne Mass, and several others by French composers, the setting by Briggs is for SATB choir with accompaniment by two organs – the Grand Orgue, which plays independently, and the smaller Orgue de Choeur, which accompanies the singing. Briggs’ work can be accompanied by a single instrument, as is done here, though I should love to hear a performance with two organs to experience the spatial effects.

The Kyrie opens, as it does in the Vierne setting, with a dramatic, imposing organ introduction. After this the choir’s contribution takes the form of a quieter supplication, though the ‘Christe’ is more urgent in tone. The Gloria is surprisingly subdued at first. Most settings of the Gloria begin joyfully and loudly; relatively few in my experience start quietly and reverently – Gounod’s St. Cecilia Mass is one such. However, things get cracking at ‘Laudamus te’, with the organ well to the fore. There’s an expressive, lyrical section at ‘Domine Deus’ but at ‘Quoniam tu solus Sanctus’ the music becomes powerful and exciting, leading to a full-on ending; hereabouts the sound of the organ is truly thrilling and the choir’s contribution is no less stirring. The Sanctus has another majestic organ introduction which leads to joyfully pealing choir parts and the ‘Hosanna’ is jubilant. In contrast the mood of the Benedictus is aptly described by the composer as one of “intimate serenity.” Here Briggs’ music is founded on lovely, delicate textures. The Agnus Dei contains arguably the deepest music. There’s a tone of subdued urgency in this beautiful prayer for peace. This is a very fine Mass setting and I hope its appearance on CD will encourage other choirs to take it up. It is showcased splendidly in this performance by the Vasari Singers with the composer presiding in the organ loft.

Even using good quality noise reduction headphones I find that I can’t while away a plane journey by listening to music; there’s too much surrounding noise to permit a satisfactory listening experience. David Briggs, it seems, is able to compose music during a flight! Pange lingua, he tells us, was largely written “at 38,000 feet on an American Airlines Boeing 767, en route from London to Boston in September 2012.” This is his commissioned work for the present CD. He sets three verses of the old hymn by St. Thomas Aquinas; the first verse and the last two. The piece is for unaccompanied choir. The tempo is slow and the mood devotional. The harmonic language is rich and sensuous – I love, for example, the harmonic shift right at the end of the first stanza. In the second verse, ‘Tantum ergo’, the music starts to move forward slightly and it grows in intensity. The harmonies become even more interesting; I was put in mind of Howells but there’s also evidence of Briggs’ love of French music. At the end Briggs reverts to the opening words, ‘Pange lingua gloriosi’, which we hear to gorgeous, quiet music. This is a very fine piece, demanding to sing, I should think, but it seems to have fired the imagination of Jeremy Backhouse and his fine choir who give it a rapt performance. Afterwards, David Briggs plays a subdued, reflective improvisation on the plainchant Tantum ergo, his approach to the melody reminding us that this is a hymn of adoration and that adoration is perhaps best expressed quietly and with humility. The improvisation is a perfect foil to his Pange lingua and in the context of this programme it provides an ideal bridge to the Mass; one can almost imagine the clergy processing to the altar.

This is a very fine disc indeed and one that I’ve enjoyed greatly. The music of both featured composers is of the highest quality and the performances are surely definitive. The Vasari Singers are on top form, singing with incisiveness and great commitment. There are several opportunities for short solos which are taken by choir members and all acquit themselves very well. I should imagine that all this music presents challenges to the singers but the choir is equal to every demand made by the respective composers. In Jeremy Backhouse they have a conductor who is renowned for his expertise with contemporary choral music. As for the organ parts these sound hugely demanding but we have two players on hand who, without exaggeration, can be said to be among the world’s finest organists: they live up to expectations. The recorded sound is excellent: the organ is superbly reported with the choir balanced expertly against it. Each composer provides good notes about their respective pieces.

At first sight this may seem like a disc with specialist appeal but I hope that won’t be the case. None of this music, with the exception of Jeremy Filsell’s Jubilate, has been recorded before, and at the Naxos price this disc affords an excellent opportunity to sample first rate music which is firmly in the tradition of English church music. It moves that tradition forward in a most stimulating, accessible and inspiring way. I do urge you to try it: I think you’ll be excited by what you hear.

John Quinn

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