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Haydn, Britten, Chopin: Sarah Beth Briggs (piano), St Martin in the Fields, London  30.1.2009 (CM)

Haydn: Sonata in C major H.16/50
Britten: Three Character Pieces
Chopin: Fantasy in F minor, Op 49

Sarah Beth Briggs  - Picture courtesy of the artist

Sarah Beth Briggs, who until Benjamin Grosvenor came along was the youngest BBC Young Musician Finalist at 11 and a past winner of the International Mozart Competition, gives an annual recital at St Martins. I went in 2008 and witnessed the finest live Appassionata that I had ever heard – and that includes Richter, Gilels and Barenboim – so I expected a high standard this year. We were not disappointed, although the very resonant church acoustic, which flatters poor pianists but does not do justice to great ones, will have robbed many who were not able to sit close to the instrument of the performer’s clarity and technical assurance even though she played on the lowest stick and St Martin’s placed a few carpet tiles under the piano.

She opened with Haydn’s C major sonata in a classically refined performance: perfect tempo in the first movement, a sensitive Adagio and a superbly intense finale. Miss Beth Briggs likes to illustrate her recitals with descriptions of her programme, and she prefaced the second set of pieces by explaining that she had given their world premiere, so we expected an authoritative interpretation. Here was Britten not perhaps at his finest but at his most approachable, with the final Character Piece, ‘Michael’ (which she warned us was “very, very difficult”), thrown off with virtuoso skill. Her latest disc, which features the set (and also includes Brahms Handel Variations and a studio Appassionata - Semaphore SML MP21) was on sale at the recital.

Sarah Beth Briggs concluded with the Chopin Fantasy, in which she took more risks but remained within complete technical control. It was architecturally and rhythmically coherent and well-judged in the pace of the opening bars, the transition to the fiery riding of the waves, and the closing adagio and arpeggios. It was plush toned, without undue rubato or the fashion (eg Pletnev) for near-grinding to a halt in expressive passages.

There was time for a brief encore, and she offered us Debussy’s La Fille au Cheveux de Lin, seemingly easy but difficult to bring off well. Remembering her Reflets dans l’Eau last year, a great interpretation that will have sounded to many in the church as though it was played in a swimming pool, I was concerned that much of the prelude would be lost in that vast echoing space. Perhaps I had a better seat this time, because it was bell-like, beautifully phrased, melting and heart-moving.

This was a performance of high quality and it is a pity that we do not hear her more in London. She is certainly in the senior league of British pianists.

Charles Miller

Sarah Beth Briggs' web site is Here

Charles Miller is the overseas representative of the Sydney International  Piano Competition of Australia and is based in the UK.

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