Elgar’s Symphony No. 1 for Organ

by Glenn on November 4, 2016

Recently I listened to two versions of a piano transcription of Elgar’s First Symphony.

The idea of a piano transcription is anachronistic, from a time before the recording age, which began in earnest in the early 20th century and has evolved over the last hundred or so years.

A piano transcription is a musical compromise—you don’t need the entire orchestra to hear the symphony played, but you don’t get all the notes nor the colors and textures of an orchestra; and the piano has its limitations—for example, the lack of sustain or the ability to increase the volume of a note already sounded. And there’s something about the physicality of an entire orchestra that isn’t reproduceable in a solo piano performance.

A recording of a piano transcription, then, is something of an oddity, giving it a limited appeal. You don’t really need the piano transcription, although I think it useful in that it provides a new way of hearing. If, say, you are familiar with a particular work, like Elgar’s First Symphony, then listening to a piano transcription is a bit like eating granita—it’s a palate cleanser.

But the point is,  the piano transcription is unnecessary these days, because you can listen to a symphony pretty much on demand.

In the case of Elgar’s First Symphony, you have your choice of artists from Elgar himself in 1930, Sir John Barbirolli with the Hallé Orchestra (which premiered the symphony) mid-century, Sir Mark Elder with the Hallé in this new millennium, Sir Colin Davis with three different orchestras, or, my personal favorite, André Previn with the Royal Philharmonic. There are more than forty different recordings of this symphony currently available.

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But what about an organ transcription?

Now this is a different thing altogether. It’s still not the original, but it feels more like an alternative than a compromise.

A symphony is an event. Of course, this isn’t true of every symphony. I listened to Aaron Copland’s Short Symphony (No. 2) the other day. This is not a main dish; it’s more of an appetizer. Often, though, the symphony is the exclamation point of an evening of orchestral music-making. It carries some weight.

So that when a symphony is reduced to a piano transcription, much of that weight is lost. But an organ—the right organ, at least, in capable hands—has that kind of substance. It can fill a room and make an emotional statement.

This is significant. If, for example, I had the option of going to hear a Mahler symphony played by an orchestra or by a piano, I would opt for the orchestra. But if my choice was between an orchestra and an organ, I’d have to think about that one, just for the sheer novelty of what the brave (we hope, and not just foolish) organist will be attempting to do.

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Some time ago, I came across a recording of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony for organ. It was transcribed and performed by David Briggs. I thought it a real tour de force. I thought it was a one-off peformance, but it turns out this kind of thing is kind of a thing for him.

When I discovered that Mr. Briggs had produced a recording of Sir Edward Elgar’s Symphony No. 1, it was a no-brainer acquisition and must-listen.

In the liner notes, Briggs describes a tradition of transcriptions for organ going back to J.S. Bach. He writes, “Bach was the master of the art of transcription, making the piece in question successful and idiomatic in its new guise.” The challenge for the transcriber is to recreate the work in such a way “that the performance in the new medium has sufficient integrity and colour.”

It’s interesting to read about Briggs’ approach to transcribing. He uses an orchestral score and not a piano transcription. He acknowledges the fact that the modern organ console provides considerable help in producing color change. And he stresses “the art of knowing what to leave out” as key to keeping a transcription from becoming unplayable.

Of course, the organ has some advantages over the piano, including pedal parts, colors and swell boxes, the capacity for sustain and crescendos, and the performance space itself, often a massive cathedral, where acoustics provide a kind of helpful climate for music-making.

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A couple of things happened as I listened to this performance:

First, I stopped hearing the organ and imagined I was listening to an orchestra—there are moments that are so well voiced and so beautifully played that my aural memory kicked in and I forgot I was listening to an organ.

The other thing is that I began to hear this as a work for organ. When you listen to the piano transcriptions of Elgar’s First Symphony, you don’t think of them as works for piano. As you listen to this transcription, though, there are times where you could be persuaded Elgar’s First Symphony was written for organ.

For certain sequences, it appears the organ doesn’t have a sound that translates well to the organ. Briggs, in his liner notes, makes this comment about his work as a transcriber/organist:

“From the performance point of view, I always endeavour to adopt a registration scheme that has as much colour and vivacity as the orchestra, but not necessarily the same explicit colours.”

Limited appeal may still come in to play for acquiring this recording, but I thoroughly enjoyed listening to this. I could see myself attending a performance of a David Briggs-transcribed symphony, if only to celebrate the heroic efforts of singular musicianship and concentration.

My favorite moment in this recording came in the transition from the second to the third movements. The second movement is a scherzo that has a swashbuckling, militant feel about it. Some of Brigg’s finest playing happens in this movement. Then at the end it slows and quiets and transitions into the sublime adagio. That transition isn’t always managed well, either because it is rushed or because a change in feel hasn’t accompanied a change in tempo.

Briggs is masterful here. There is no rush as things quiet down. The final bars of the scherzo are drawn out , each bar line takes longer to arrive. And then there is just the briefest of holds—a long inhale—on that lone F# (in f# minor) before the adagio begins with an exhale in the new key of D Major. It’s a beautiful moment in this complicated symphony, perhaps the easiest to play in terms of the notes, but one of the more difficult to master because it requires managing what came before while anticipating what is to come.

I enjoyed the adagio as played on the organ. But it’s also the adagio that makes me miss the orchestra from time to time. If you like your Elgar understated, say like Sir Adrian Boult in his 1976 performance with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, you might not miss the orchestra here. But if you like some heightened emotion, with generous portamento, à la Barbirolli with the Hallé Orchestra in 1956, then you find this to be one area where the organ cannot quite compensate for the orchestra’s power of expression.

I’ve listened to this recording several times over the last week or so. I enjoyed it best with headphones. My one attempt through speakers demonstrated the inadequacy of my sound system for conveying the dynamic range of an organ.

I recommend this recording with the acknowledgment that I have yet to listen to Elgar’s Second, which is included on a second CD. (I much prefer the First and may or may not get to the Second.) Mr. Briggs gets the final word on what he calls “re-castings” of Elgar’s Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2. He says they are

“rather like seeing great paintings in different frames under completely new lighting conditions. This is highly-charged, emotional music, which shows Elgar’s complete mastery of symphonic form and orchestration, and his genius for creating a highly original soundscape, which is instantly recognisable and completely inimitable.”

Elgar’s First Symphony (as well as others) transcribed for organ is available here.