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 2007. DDD
This is English pianist Sarah Beth Briggs' second solo CD, released in 2007 on Semaphore. Her latest CD came out this summer - see review. Both these discs, and her first from 2005, featuring Haydn, Mozart, Brahms, Chopin and Bartók, have received considerable critical approbation.
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 (review). 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 necessary.
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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A winning recital with very wide appeal.