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Claude DEBUSSY (1862 – 1918)
Suite Bergamasque, L82 (c. 1890, rev. 1905) [19:09]
Frederic CHOPIN (1810 – 1849)
Ballade No. 1 in G minor, op. 23 (c. 1835) [9:52]
Berceuse in D flat major, op. 57 (1844) [5:10]
Fantaisie in F minor, op. 49 (1841) [13:32]
Scherzo No. 4 in E major, op. 54 (1842-3) [12:06]
Pour le piano, L95 (1894-1901) [14:21]
Sarah Beth Briggs (piano)
rec. Potton Hall, Suffolk, 16-18 September 2014

To the Prélude of Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque Sarah Beth Briggs brings a grand breadth of opening statement. Sunny relaxation follows in the semiquaver runs. The second phase (tr. 1, 1:11) shows smooth glints of upper register melody like the sudden flashing of shafts of sunlight. Briggs well conveys the sense of working towards a climax in the third section (2:39) which is ultimately fulfilled in the coda. This can be heard especially in the triumph of the closing fortissimo chord. I compared the 1992 recording by Paul Crossley (Sony 886919 30732). His account is faster, 4:11 against Briggs’s 4:52, which emphasizes the progression and structure of the piece. His opening statement is less grand but his semiquaver runs are more mercurial. Briggs gives you more detail and atmosphere. The second movement Menuet in Briggs’ hands (tr. 2) is a marked contrast of punctiliously pointed dance and more carefree, floating material which is first heard at 0:14. She makes you feel the latter is the essence of the piece, the joy of the experience of the dance. Crossley’s faster treatment of the marking Andantino, 3:59 against Briggs’s 4:57, shows both elements to be different facets of the same personality. He conveys an emotionally cooler temperature than Briggs who gives us a more ecstatic climax. In Clair de lune, a musical evocation of Verlaine’s poem, Crossley is slower than Briggs, 5:38 against 5:26 and makes more use of rubato. Thereby he achieves a more magical feeling of evanescence and unpredictability. Briggs is nicely detailed and observed with a firm climax to the central section (tr. 3, 1:59) which depicts Verlaine’s fountains sobbing with ecstasy. She is altogether in the present moment, without Crossley’s pervasive drag and calm which also creates a sense of distance. In the suite’s final movement, Passepied, it’s Briggs who is slightly slower, 3:54 against Crossley’s 3:32, giving the piece more buoyancy in its upper register centre (tr. 4, 0:56). Beginning jauntily, Briggs enjoys its varieties of mood more, conveying a sense of relaxed exploration where Crossley prefers to remain more business-like and jocular.

The introduction to Ballade No. 1 makes a fine transition to the fundamentally different world of Chopin. Within a few seconds the opening grandeur, akin to that of Suite Bergamasque, is transformed to an aching plea. The first theme waltz (tr. 5, 0:44) is, from Briggs, beauty defiled in a deliberation of step and expression of pain. The second theme (3:01) is blithe but a distant recollection. The first theme returns more melancholic, the second more defiant. On its third appearance the second theme is more joyous, the first of a rounded acceptance before being hurled into a delirious coda punctuated by a funeral march. I compared Murray Perahia’s 1994 recording (Sony 888430 62432). Perahia’s timing is 8:49 against Briggs’s 9:52. This brings a velvety lilt to the first theme but at the same time a wish to be unobtrusive, to disappear. Perahia’s second theme is warmer and a present contentment. His first theme returns more distraught, the second more ecstatic. On its third appearance his second theme has more of the sense of glorious fulfilment, the first a mellow sadness disorientated to a frenzied coda.

Chopin’s Berceuse is closer to the more relaxed manner, at least on the surface, of Debussy. Briggs takes it at a gentle Andante, giving it space to allow clarity to its variations, sixteen of this 4 bar cradle song over an ostinato ground. Her playing is at times limpid, at times warm and sometimes has an icy freshness. The whole has an underlying poise and untroubled measure but Briggs also brings a sense of spontaneity, of a quality of improvisation in the interpretation. Perahia’s playing is more beautiful. His melody is more singing and lilting, intimate but also introvert, cocooned in a loving union with the baby. Briggs is more outgoing. For me she offers a wide-eyed survey of an active world around her and in so doing points more clearly the distinctions between the variations.

Of the Fantaisie both Briggs and Perahia give performances which command attention and end excitingly. Perahia is a little faster, 12:54 against Briggs’s 13:32. For me the effect is that Briggs stands outside and observes with keen concentration the narrative where Perahia experiences it from the inside. So there’s more poise and beauty from Briggs, more urgency and passion from Perahia. Briggs’ opening to the March of the introduction has a quizzical, perhaps mocking quality where Perahia is more mysterious and gloomy. The arpeggio style which opens the main section (tr. 7, 3:06) is from Briggs of a free, abstract exploration where Perahia powers resolutely forward. The first theme (4:13) is from Briggs initially grim, then delighted in flight. From Perahia it seems to have been wrested unwillingly and then flees passionately. The chorale (7:58) is in Briggs’ hands warm, beatific, but also dignified. Perahia makes it more neutrally a time of peace. It is in the moments of repose that Briggs is most expressive: the four instances from 7:07 of a three-note phrase like sighs in response to the arpeggios; the pleading phrases of recitative from 12:15 before the peroration.

After this emotional high point, Briggs takes us to the more playful ambience of Chopin’s fourth Scherzo (tr. 8). This is all about the interplay of a melody in variation and a gossamer commentary on it, with the two sometimes simultaneous - for example, from 2:13. Here I compared the 1977 recording by Sviatoslav Richter (Alto ALC 1159). Briggs doesn’t quite match the marvellous spring Richter brings to the phrasing of the melody, nor does she bring as much delicacy to the commentary, but she does reveal the work as a painstaking exploration of the place and placing of melody at its heart in relation to a multitude of pianistic effects, features which are also significant in Debussy’s Pour le piano. Indeed, her treatment of the melodic material has the cool, observed quality that she brings to Debussy and this serves well in the central section (4:09). This displays a new, extended melody which Briggs treats with breadth and a sorrowful eloquence, a viable alternative to Richter’s freer flowing, plainer projection contrasted with the finesse of his attention to its occasional decoration.

To the Prélude of Pour le piano Briggs brings a dramatic opening. In the main body of the piece she blends well the maelstrom of rippling semiquavers and lurking melodic progression. The spotlights of glissandi are thrillingly conveyed, the high register wisps of melody in the second phase glacial. Her closing Tempo di cadenza section (tr. 9, 3:24) emphasizes both display and technique. Crossley’s interpretation is less powerful but more varied. He brings to the main body a more urgent progression, plays the glissandi with more showmanship, the high wisps of melody more lusciously, the closing section more playfully. Briggs’ second movement Sarabande is slower than Crossley’s, 5:42 against 5:04. This makes it less dance-like but more stately. Her central section is more emotive after which she brings more impact and contrast to the changed face of the opening material’s return. Her climax is formal, less celebratory than Crossley’s, but her closing regretful retreat from it is sadder. In the third movement Toccata Briggs is both exuberant and playful and balances well the ubiquitous cascades of semiquavers and latent melody. She is more concentrated in articulation and conveys more atmosphere than Crossley whose semiquavers are lighter and forward sweep more dramatic and compelling. On the other hand Briggs’ climax is more passionate and her close, as Debussy wanted, ‘sparkling and loud’. A fitting end to a well sequenced programme, well played and vividly recorded.

Michael Greenhalgh

Previous review: Stephen Greenbank



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