Who or what inspired you to take up the piano, and make it your career?
My father was my initial inspiration. He was an English teacher, but he always had a few piano students coming to the house. I was intrigued and wanted to do what they were doing. So he started me off when I was four. Having someone to help me when I was in the mood, rather than being forced into playing was probably the greatest encouragement.
Career wise – I suppose there is a point when music just takes over. It was never an active choice. It happened fairly early for me. I was (at the time) the youngest ever finalist in BBC Young Musician at 11 and things went from there.
Who or what were the most important influences on your playing?
Denis Matthews was the most incredible inspiration. I was very fortunate to be taught by him from the age of eight until his death. He was such a terrific all round musician. He made me understand that there was far more to being a good musician than playing the piano. Lessons would involve listening to Mozart operas, Beethoven string quartets, Brahms symphonies etc and then making the piano ‘become’ a singer, a string quartet, a pair of horns – always looking way beyond the dots on any given page!
I was then lucky to study chamber music with the great violist, Bruno Giuranna and go on to work with Chilean concert pianist, Edith Fischer (an Arrau pupil) in Switzerland.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
The path of a freelance musician is a rocky one and the route to success is never simple. My first huge challenge was to lose my mentor, Denis Matthews (who was a close personal friend in addition to being such a huge musical inspiration) at such an early age.
Poor instruments are always a challenge – battling with the impossible to some extent, but it is a pianist’s responsibility to achieve the very best possible from any given instrument.
Perhaps, however, the greatest challenge of all is to remain true to yourself (whatever external pressures try to dictate). The music business is fickle and it’s impossible to please everyone. A huge self awareness is constantly necessary and being as faithful to the score as possible is, to me, the single most important thing to aim for.
Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
There is something very satisfying about feeling that I have contributed towards a particularly exciting chamber music performance, so perhaps my happiest moments of performing to reflect on have been when I’ve been part of a really exhilarating musical collaboration. As far as recordings go, I suppose my latest disc (of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven) is the one that I feel the most pride in looking back on.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?
Actually, no – so much depends on each individual occasion and, to some degree, the association that certain places hold. In terms of beauty, performing at the Mozarteum in Salzburg is special. Whilst it’s not aesthetically the most pleasing hall, I love the acoustic of Fairfield, Croydon (and I particularly like its new model D Steinway). Performing at Stern Grove in San Francisco to 20,000 people was exciting (in spite of the acoustic problems of playing outdoors) and at the other end of the scale, playing to something like 120 people in the delightfully intimate atmosphere of St Mary’s Church in Lastingham was just as special. So, it varies hugely for me and the most prestigious venues in which I’ve played haven’t necessarily been my preferred spaces. I do, however, long to play in the glorious acoustic of the Wigmore Hall – a particular favourite for concert going.
Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?
The answer to the first question has to be whatever I am currently performing – otherwise the performance couldn’t be convincing.
One wonderful thing about being a pianist is the vast repertoire of superb music that we are so lucky to have to perform. Composers I couldn’t survive without performing are: Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Schubert, Brahms, Debussy and Chopin and on the next tier: Schumann, Bartok, Prokofiev and Mendelssohn. I have notably missed out JS Bach whose music I love but have decided (in the main) to save performance-wise until a few more years have elapsed.
When it comes to listening – anything that isn’t solo piano! My strong preferences lie in the symphonic and chamber fields – if I had to name just a handful of composers – orchestrally, I would again have to choose Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn and Brahms but with a definite addition of Sibelius. Chamber wise – yet again Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn Brahms, Schubert (perhaps at the top of my chamber list) and Schumann. Oh – and the ‘wild card’ is Faure’s Cantique de Jean Racine……six and a half minutes of pure, deeply moving beauty that always manages to de-stress me even in my most highly-charged moments!
Who are your favourite musicians?
Several of the musicians who I have the good fortune of playing chamber music with – perhaps unfair to single out! When it comes to other pianists, I suppose my very favourites would have to include Radu Lupu, Murray Perahia, Paul Lewis and the stunning Benjamin Grosvenor.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
Being locked in the dressing room at Morpeth Town Hall (aged 10) with a load of alcohol ready for a wedding reception and not being able to get to the stage. I can still sense the anxiety of knocking on that door and being unable to get out!!!!!
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
To be able to develop an individual voice whilst trying to honour what we believe the composers’ wishes would have been as much as possible. I think the hardest thing to teach is not so much the sounds as the silences – the way notes are placed and the whole concept of how to breathe is something that really needs to be innate. And yet as teachers, we need to attempt to put our students on the right track. And finally – can anyone help to improve someone’s staying power? I guess that being able to impart the notion that any aspiring musician will need dogged determination is very necessary.
What do you enjoy doing most?
Away from the piano, I love good food and wine (both at home and discovering it on my travels) the theatre, exploring the countryside with my delightfully lively cocker spaniel and spending time with close friends and family.
Sarah Beth Briggs latest CD of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert is available now. Further details here
Newcastle born pianist Sarah Beth Briggs was (at that time) the youngest ever finalist in the history of BBC Young Musician competition at the age of 11 and gained a Myra Hess Award at the same age. At 15, she jointly won the International Mozart Competition in Salzburg. She studied in Newcastle, York and Birmingham with Denis Matthews and in Switzerland with Edith Fischer. A Hindemith scholarship also led to chamber music study in Switzerland with violist, Bruno Giuranna.
A soloist and chamber musician, she has broadcast and performed live in the UK, around Europe and the USA and has worked with many renowned orchestras including the Halle, London Mozart Players, London Philharmonic, English Chamber Orchestra, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic, Ulster Orchestra, Manchester Camerata, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Northern Sinfonia and Vienna Chamber Orchestra. She has also given numerous masterclasses and chamber music coaching sessions in the UK and abroad.
She is the pianist in three chamber ensembles, The Anton Stadler Trio (with clarinettist Janet Hilton and violist Robin Ireland), Clarion³ (with Janet Hilton and bassoonist Laurence Perkins) and Trio Melzi (with violinist Richard Howarth and cellist Hannah Roberts).
Sarah has produced recordings of Bartok, Beethoven, Brahms, Britten (the world premiere of whose Three Character Pieces she gave in 1989) Chopin, Haydn, Mozart and Rawsthorne on the Semaphore label.
(image credit Clive Barda/ArenaPAL)
Interview date: October 2012