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The Austrian Connection
Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Variations on "Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser" [7:28]
Piano Sonata in C major, Hob. XV1/50 [15:25]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Piano Sonata No. 8 in A Minor, K 310 [20:11]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Piano Sonata No. 13 in A major D.664 [21:00]
Hans GÁL (1890-1987)
Three Preludes, Op. 65 (1944) [9:28]
Sarah Beth Briggs (piano)
rec. 2020, Clothworkers Centenary Concert Hall, Leeds, UK
AVIE AV2418 [74:21]

Sarah Beth Briggs sets out her stall at the beginning of the accompanying booklet, explaining the reasoning behind this intelligently-constructed recital. Over the years, she has ardently championed the music of Hans Gál, whom she describes as "... perhaps the last great composer to uphold the tonal Austro-German tradition that began in the late-eighteenth century with Haydn and Mozart". She entitles her programme "The Austrian Connection", with the aim of tracing the link between Gál and his two illustrious predecessors, via the dawn of Romanticism and Franz Schubert.

How appropriate to begin with Haydn's Variations on “Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser”, Austria's first national anthem. The four variations started life as the slow movement of the 'Emperor' String Quartet, Op. 76, No. 3, and in 1799 Haydn made this delightful piano arrangement. It acts as the perfect curtain raiser for the composer's C major Sonata, Hob. XV1/50. I love this particular sonata, and Briggs' performance has plenty of personality, with the outer movements brimming over with life. It's certainly not short of Haydnesque wit. The stops and starts, wrong-footing the listener, are all perfectly judged. Yes, it's sheer joy. Sitting midway is a poetic, Italianate Adagio, where Briggs’ embellishments flow naturally and instinctively.

Mozart's A minor Sonata, K310, one of only two piano sonatas Mozart wrote in the minor key, couldn't provide greater contrast. Some commentators have pointed out that this work mirrored his failure to succeed in the Parisian artistic environment, but it is worth pointing out that this visit also produced the Paris symphony K297, an extrovert work of sunny disposition. Also, in July of that fateful year, his mother died after a short illness. Is his personal loss reflected in the turbulence of this work? Briggs invests the opener with drama, passion and intensity, and although the Andante is lyrical, the central section is brooding and turbulent. The Presto finale is one of light and shadow, melancholy and hope.

In the Schubert Sonata we regain some of the geniality and upbeat feeling of the Haydn. Briggs emphasizes the work's song-like character. This sunny affability has secured the popularity of this sonata. Briggs’ playing has all the prerequisite warmth and eloquence, and her phrasing is imaginative and characterful. The slow movement offers some contrast in the form of poignant and bittersweet elements. In the finale, the pianist plays with rhythmic vitality, setting the seal on a convincing interpretation.

Gál's Three Preludes, Op. 65 date from 1944, and count amongst his most accomplished piano pieces. The first is a relentless whirlwind of persistent rhythm. The introspective second Prelude is like soothing balm with its reflective, calming demeanour. The cascades and roulades of the third are a toccata in all but name. Briggs achieves clarity of line and detail by prudent use of the sostenuto pedal.

The recorded sound on this Avie disc is exceptional by any standards. Briggs is helped along by the magnificent acoustic of the Clothworkers Centenary Concert Hall, Leeds, not a venue I can say I'm familiar with. She has also been served with a well-tuned and well-regulated Steinway, of rich tone. The release gets my enthusiastic endorsement.

Stephen Greenbank

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