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Jonathan Woolf
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Tessa Birnie
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Piano Sonata in B flat major D960 (1828) [41:23]
Moments Musicaux D790 (1823-27) [28:16]
CD 2
Piano Sonata in E minor D459 (1816) [25:46]
Piano Sonata in C major D840 (1828) [24:27]
Allegretto in C minor D915 (1827)[6:07]
Minuet and Trio in A major D334 (c.1815) [3:36]
Adagio in D flat major D505 [3:41]
Seventeen Landler D145 [6:16]
CD 3
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata No.14 Op.27 No.2 Moonlight [16:54]
John FIELD (1782-1837)
Nocturne No.5 in B flat major [3:31]
Fryderyk CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Mazurka in A minor Op.68 No.2 [2:53]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Variations on an Original Theme Op.29 No.1 [16:32]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Kinderszenen Op.15 (1838) [18:52]
Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)
Romance sans paroles Op.17 No.1 [2:42]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Three Preludes (1910-13);
La serenade interrompue Book 1 No.9 [2:16]
Bruyères Book 2 No. 5 [2:43]
General Lavine – eccentric Book 2 No.6 [2:16]
Tessa Birnie (piano)
rec. ABC Sydney Studios c.1962 (D459, D840), Royal Festival Hall, London c.1974 (D790, D145, Beethoven Op.27 No.2, Field, Brahms, Schumann, Debussy) and St Josephs College, Hunters Hill (D915, D334, D505, Chopin, Fauré)
ABC CLASSICS 4766479 [3 CDs: 69:45 + 69:30 + 68:51] 


Experience Classicsonline

Tessa Birnie (1934-2008) became known as something of a Schubert specialist. The New Zealand pianist had studied in her native country with Paul Schramm, and then in Europe with Yvonne Lefébure and Karl-Ulrich Schnabel. Much admired she gave some awe-inspiring recital projects; all 450 solo piano works of Schubert as well as all the four-hand works; all the Haydn keyboard sonatas. She also busily sought out obscure repertoire and wrote freely on musical matters – and she wrote an autobiography, I’m Going To Be A Pianist. Happily she knew of the impending publication of this three CD conspectus though less happily she died before its release. 

Schubert’s B flat major sonata was for Birnie ‘the most personal’ of all the music, by any composer that she played. It was recorded in the time left over from other commercial sessions and to it she  - who had last played it over two years before – felt she brought a ‘fresh viewpoint and spontaneity.’ I quote her own words, not simply because ABC does so in its booklet notes, but because it reflects something of her engagement and unselfconscious honesty in these matters. It’s a performance notable in particular for her approach to the slow movement in which the clipped staccati stay longest in the memory; though she modifies phrasing extremes as the movement develops. It’s an approach dramatically divergent from such as Artur Schnabel, Kempff and Curzon. The scherzo is full of character and brio. In all it’s a thought provoking and very individual performance. D459 is less extreme. It’s clear and elegantly phrased. Its first scherzo is perhaps less pert than Kempff’s but is full of fine contrast, urgent where Kempff is more grand seigniorial. She is more overtly expressive and warm in the slow movement, and slower too, where Kempff finds a more tensile expressivity.

The Moments Musicaux are thoughtful and imaginatively phrased, a little Schnabelian perhaps in orientation. And the smaller Schubert pieces are but a brief though probing index of her immersion in that vast corpus of piano music. The C major sonata is the most important and a fine example of Birnie at her unmannered best.

The last disc starts with what to some will be a well-known performance, the Moonlight Sonata here performed in B minor. Birnie believed that ‘were he alive today’ Beethoven would lower the pitch because ‘the C sharp minor of his day is not the C sharp minor of today’. I leave that to musicologists to fight over. She plays it with the sustaining pedal fully depressed – which imparts a rather echo-y patina to her slow songful first movement. Her Schumann Kinderszenen follows; sympathetically done though occasionally protracted – for example Wichtige Begebenheit. She delves deeper as the cycle progresses though not as deeply as Carl Friedberg; mind you, few have. There is a good Brahms Variations on an Original Theme though it’s a pity they weren’t separately tracked and other smaller pieces round out this fine conspectus.

Because she lived for many years in that country this release sails under the ‘Australian Masters’ rubric. It constitutes a well-documented and merited salute to Tessa Birnie.

Jonathan Woolf


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