Sarah Beth Briggs’s latest release is dedicated to her teacher, the renowned pianist and musicologist Dennis Matthews, who died 25 years ago this December. Sarah pays tribute to his memory with a selection of much-loved works by Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, pieces which were at the core of Matthews’ performing repertoire, and to which he introduced Sarah when she was still very young. The liner notes contain a touching tribute to Dennis Matthews by Sarah, recalling a concert when she heard him perform Schubert’s last sonata.
Mozart composed the C minor Fantasy in May 1785, shortly after the C minor Piano Sonata K457. Often a set piece for young piano students (I learnt the Fantasy, together with the C minor Sonata, when I was about 12 or 13, with little conception of how profound these works really are), the work is imbued with a gravity, drama and pathos more akin to Beethoven, and programming it before the great C minor ‘Pathètique’ Sonata allows the listener to make connections, both musical and emotional, between these two works. Sarah brings a sense of mystery to the opening motif, with a spacious and suspenseful reading. This atmosphere of darkness and disquiet pervades the work, though there are sunnier episodes too.
Throughout Sarah plays with great clarity, sensitive to Mozart’s precise and dramatic articulation, dynamic ‘chiaroscuro’, and contrasting changes of mood, character, key and tempi. The major key interludes are warm and lyrical, while the Allegro sections are furious and agitated, the tremolando figure in the treble a brief but impassioned outburst. This is dramatic and highly satisfying reading shines a new light on this well-known work, and had me reaching for my (rather dog-eared) score from my teens, with a view to revisiting this Fantasy.
From the drama of Mozart’s C minor to Beethoven’s in the ‘Pathètique’ Sonata, Op 13. Like the Fantasy, the Sonata opens with a darkly dramatic and richly orchestral ascending broken chord figure. But this is more than an introduction, returning several times during the course of the movement. The succeeding Allegro is tight and energetic, played with a tempo which suggests the music bordering on unbridled frenzy, but never allowed to fully break free. This, coupled with the same careful articulation as in the Mozart, serves to further highlight the tension and dynamic contrasts of this movement. In the liner notes, Sarah gives her reasons for omitting the exposition repeat.
The slow movement is surely one of Beethoven’s best loved and most beautiful, a warm ‘cello-like cantabile over a gently moving bass line, suggesting a song without words. Unfussy pedalling, and sensitivity to the melody in the treble, and string articulation in the bass line, make this movement most satisfying, a delightful breathing space between the drama of the first and final movements.
The final movement has an elusive quality, and, despite its minor key, is wistful rather than dark. Sarah’s choice of tempo allows the passage work and cadenzas to shine. Like the Mozart, the movement ends defiantly.
Composed only a few months before his death in 1828, Schubert’s B-flat Sonata D960 was the result of a period of fervent compositional activity, and is considered to be his finest piano sonata. Compared to the Beethoven, it is expansive (indeed, the “heavenly length” of its opening movement is as long as an entire Beethoven Piano Sonata), and Sarah’s account offers a persuasive narrative, from the songful opening measures of the first subject, through the entire exposition (thankfully with repeat intact, to allow one to fully comprehend the drama of the trill before the reprise, and the extraordinary bridge into the development), to the gentle, prayer-like closing cadence. This is enhanced by the choice of tempo, a moderato that moves forward with a pleasing suppleness and fluency, and scrupulous attention to articulation.
Richly resonant bass notes underpin the meditative Andante sostenuto slow movement, while a sunny wamth pervades the central A major section, recalling the opening sentence of the first movement. The third movement sparkles, fresh and delicate, its playful Scherzo theme emerging gradually, as if from the mist of the previous movement. The essential sunniness is hardly obscured by the darker Trio; rather the shift of mood seems witty here, rather than gloomy.
The finale brings together many of the elements heard in the previous works on this disc: contrasting moods, tempi, dynamics, textures and colours, but always reinforced by Schubert’s melodic grace and poetry. Sarah is responsive to the shifting landscape of this movement, and the overall atmosphere is witty and positive, ending with a triumphant Presto.
This is an extremely satisfying, characterful and thoughtful reading of three great works for the piano, underpinned by intelligent programme notes, and attractive design (the cover image is a painting of Sarah by Paul Martinez-Frias). The recording was made on a Steinway at Potton Hall, Suffolk, a venue famed for its clear acoustic. Combined with Sarah’s ever-responsive articulation, musical sensitivity, quality of sound and clarity of delivery, this is a splendid programme, and excellent value too.