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SEEN AND HEARD UK CONCERT REVIEW
Chopin, Schumann: Sarah Beth Briggs (piano). Fairfield Halls, London 19.10.2010 (CM)
Frederic Chopin: Barcarolle in F sharp minor Op 60
Robert Schumann: Kinderszenen Op 15
Frederic Chopin: Ballade in A flat major Op 47
Robert Schumann: Arabesque in C Op 18
Frederic Chopin: Ballade in F minor Op 52
Although battle rages between Croydon Council and its architects over the cost of the long-overdue renovation of the Fairfield Halls, they have at least been able to afford a new Model D, and Sarah Beth Briggs’ Chopin and Schumann programme may well have been the instrument’s inaugural solo recital. Heard from a box high above the concert platform, the piano’s sound was clear, mellow yet firm, and it will improve further as it is played in. The pianist matched the Steinway’s quality with the sort of assured, finely judged performance that we have come to expect from this established artist.
Chopin and Schumann programmes are ten a penny this year and by October few piano pieces by either composer would have been unfamiliar to regular concert-goers, who have had the cruel luxury of being able to compare several live interpretations of the same works in short order. On the other hand, performers have had the best part of a year to hone their bicentenary repertoire and the audience was expecting polish and distinctiveness. Miss Beth Briggs is not an idiosyncratic pianist. She gets on and does the job, but she does it without exaggerated speeds, overstretched phrasing or empty virtuosity. What she brings is a rock solid technique, refinement, and interpretative coherence that makes one listen to the music rather than its executor.
She selected a group of pieces for their chronological relationship – all five were written within six years of each other. Opening with a Barcarolle (1846) that showed fine lyrical cantabile, with the transition into and from the modulation sensitively handled and a gentler, less explosive ending than many have offered us, she turned to Kinderszenen (1838), the reflective numbers delivered exquisitely from the heart – one of the few occasions, recorded or live, when I have heard the Prophet speaking portentously rather than gently stroking his cat in front of the fire - and the brisker pieces with strength, although perhaps with mild rhythmic waywardness in Gluckes Genug.
The third (1841) and fourth (1842) Ballades sandwiched Schumann’s Arabesque (1839), the first of them touched with delicate and haunting lyricism, summoning the swirl of a mid-19th century ball. The Arabesque, which Schumann dismissed as a salon piece to please Viennese ladies, was interpreted tenderly and with simplicity. And the closing F minor Ballade was imbued by Miss Beth Briggs with an air of sadness and mystery, heightening and delaying the tension before she threw a furious but note-perfect and – all too often lost in the torrent of notes - coherent coda at the audience. No encore was offered and none expected. The concertgoers knew they had had value.
“All that stuff’s a bit heavy for me”, I heard one elderly lady remark as she shuffled out. But that’s Croydon for you.