This is English pianist Sarah Beth Briggs' first solo CD, released in 2005 on Semaphore. Her latest CD was released this summer - see review
. Both these discs, and the one sandwiched between, a German-English recital of Beethoven, Brahms, Britten and Rawsthorne, have received considerable critical approbation.
Even where recording selections for a projected CD are purely artistic - which must necessarily rarely be the case - a sizable problem for all pianists starting out with core repertoire works like the five played here by Briggs is competition: there are literally dozens of recordings, sometimes hundreds, for music lovers to choose from when exploring this music. There is compensation to be had for sure for the very best soloists in the greater sales familiar works will bring, but the beauty of this CD is the fact that the works have been thoughtfully selected and ordered by the pianist - Haydn and Chopin the bread for "a truly great F minor sandwich" - not by a business executive. So even if Briggs's interpretations may not necessarily usurp anyone's favourite artists, as a cohesive recital this disc is a winner, and is, on the one hand, certain to appeal to newcomers, yet will also provide an enjoyable hour-plus of listening to all and sundry, however ingrained their preferences.
Briggs's recording career opens, then, with Haydn's F minor Andante con Variazioni, the more correct title given to arguably Haydn's greatest keyboard work, its initial simplicity and beauty looking back wistfully to an earlier time while its growing complexity, chromaticism and tragic conclusion presage Beethoven.
On her third CD Briggs plays one of Mozart's greatest piano sonatas, the C minor K.457, but for this first essay she addresses the more straightforward and sunlit F major Sonata K.332. She describes Mozart, quite reasonably, as "at the centre of my musical universe". A little more contentiously perhaps, she says that he "sets standards against which all true musicians must be judged." K.332 at least is well within the reach of professional pianists, as evidenced by the vast number of commercial recordings available, but the work's lovely melodies and positive disposition set up an interesting contrast with the next item.
Bartók may seem at first glance a somewhat brash choice to follow the Classical perfection of Haydn and Mozart, and precede the dark Romantic intensity of Brahms and Chopin. Certainly its quasi-atonal scherzo is a world away from any of these four, though Chopin's harmonies do sometimes reappear in the most unlikely places. If Briggs includes it for the chance to show off a different kind of virtuosity, muscular and masculine, then why not? Particularly when she has the technique and gumption to bring it off with a success to match her discretion. The high-speed third movement is especially compelling.
Technical prowess is required in less heady quantities in Brahms's Four Piano Pieces - or Klavierstücke, in the commoner German form - but the three heterogeneous Intermezzi plus single Rhapsody more than compensate in the degrees of expressive insight (no.1), deftness of touch (no.2), lyrical humour (no.3) and sense of drama (no.4) needed to give a truly persuasive performance: Briggs is hard to fault in any regard.
For the final work, Briggs returns to the 'home' key of F minor, for Chopin's great Ballade no.4, op.52, one of his profoundest works, an 'emotional rollercoaster' in modern parlance, for which Briggs has the prowess, passion and poetry to do justice to Chopin's boundless imagination.
The booklet notes are written in a personal, colloquial style by Briggs. One minor carp is that the booklet does not give composers' first names, their dates of birth and death or any dates for the works - all such information in the above listing is drawn from other sources. As this is mainstream repertoire Semaphore might argue that the composer facts at least are so well known that they need not be given, and they can of course be looked up fairly easily. But that is to neglect, perhaps even deter potential buyers drawn to the music on the strength of Briggs's reputation on the one hand, whilst dates of composition are measurably more time-consuming to uncover. There is half a line missing between pages 4 and 5. It should read: "It is, essentially, a set of variations on a somewhat tragic theme, with various contrasting interludes." The corrected booklet in PDF form is available via the Downloads link on her website
The CD is beautifully recorded on a Steinway in the subtle acoustic of Potton Hall, although the booklet admits to using some engineered reverberation. A varied, generous programme of excellent pianism from performer and composers alike.
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