Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata in F minor, op.57 (1804-5) [24:37] Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Three Character Pieces (1930) [7:24] Alan RAWSTHORNE (1905-1971)
4 Bagatelles (1938) [6:23] Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, op.24 (1861) [29:23]
Sarah Beth Briggs (piano)
rec. Potton Hall, Westleton, Suffolk, England, 30 August - 1 September
SEMAPHORE MULTIMEDIA SML MP21 [68:22]
This is English pianist Sarah Beth Briggs' second solo CD, released
in 2007 on Semaphore. Her latest CD came out this summer - see
Both these discs, and her first from 2005, featuring Haydn,
Mozart, Brahms, Chopin and Bartók, have received considerable
Briggs opened and closed her first CD with a work in F minor,
and here she is again with another in a key that seems to gather
masterpieces to itself. Recordings of Beethoven's Piano Sonata
op.57 are now so numerous that many will inevitably sound -
in a good way, usually - very much like one another; but if
for nothing else, Briggs' stands out immediately for her scrupulous
attention to dynamics - her pianissimos are precisely that,
not the cocksure approximation that goes by the name of artistic
licence in so many contemporary recordings, her subito fortes
do not take their time about it and her p < f crescendos
do not forget where they are going three quarters of the way
there! Beethoven knew nothing of the 'Appassionata' name attached
later to this work, but Briggs performs with a kind of controlled
fervour that makes this rendition impossible to dislike.
Briggs herself gave the first performance of Benjamin Britten's
Three Character Pieces in 1989, an unusual union of sixteen-year-old
composer and pianist. Though youthful, and in truth not very
Britten-like, the Character Pieces - entitled 'John', 'Daphne'
and 'Michael' after three friends - live up to their name and
the final Piece is surprisingly virtuosic. Alan Rawsthorne's
Bagatelles date from around the same time, though Rawsthorne
was a bit older and these pieces, despite their title, are mature,
finely hewn, enigmatic and profound. They have been recorded
a few times before: notable recentish recordings include Stephen
Hough on his 2002 'English Piano Album' (review)
and a remastering on Lyrita of a 1950s recording by James Gibb
The very first recording was made by Denis Matthews, a friend
of Rawsthorne's and Briggs's teacher; this is a finely paid
tribute from her to him.
Briggs completes her programme with Brahms's massive solo piano
masterpiece, the Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel,
op.24, which she performs with impressive clarity of articulation
and warm-hearted Brahmsian playfulness.
The booklet notes are written in a personal, colloquial style
by Briggs. As with her first CD, one minor carp is that the
booklet does not give composers' first names, their dates of
birth and death or the dates of composition of the works - at
least not in the track listings. The information given above
this review is drawn from other sources. Semaphore might argue
that the composer facts at least are so well known that they
can be omitted, and can of course be looked up fairly easily.
True too, much of the missing information is in Briggs' notes
- but why not just put it where regular CD buyers expect to
see it or, for newcomers, where it can aid an instant appraisal?
One last point: there seem to be too many photos of Briggs this
time - she rarely looks entirely at ease in them, giving at
least the impression that they were someone else's idea. The
booklet in PDF form is available via the Downloads link on her
website, no purchase
The CD is beautifully recorded on a Steinway in the subtle acoustic
of Potton Hall, although the booklet admits to using some engineered
reverberation. As in the earlier release, a strength of this
CD is the fact that the works have been thoughtfully selected
and ordered by Briggs herself rather than by a business executive.
So even if her interpretations may not necessarily trump long-revered
versions, this remains a winning recital with very wide appeal,
given by a soloist whose artistic integrity and musical personality
will endear her to musicians and audiences alike.
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