British pianist Sarah Beth Briggs has built her reputation on performing and recording the “core canon” of piano repertoire, and she has a particular affinity with the music of Haydn, Mozart and Schubert. Her playing is always elegant and tasteful, intelligent and sensitive, and in this new release she brings all these qualities to repertoire which she clearly adores.

‘The Austrian Connection’ traces the compositional links between four Austrian composers: Hans Gál (1890-1987) was perhaps the last great composer to uphold the tonal Austro-German tradition that began with Haydn and Mozart, and, arguably, reached its apogee in the music of Schubert (and also Brahms). Sarah Beth Briggs is a keen advocate of Hans Gál’s music – she made a world premiere recording of his Piano Concerto in 2016 – and the three preludes included on this disc perfectly complement the three sonatas which precede them.

As the focus of this disc is on Austrian connections, it is perhaps fitting that the opening piece is Haydn’s variations on “Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser”, Austria’s first national anthem. From a simple hymn theme, a set of four variations follow, and where one might expect grandeur, given the theme’s significance, Sarah instead offers an intimate and charming account which provides the perfect introduction to one of Haydn’s best-known and loved piano sonatas, Hob. XVI/50 in C.

This sonata was written in 1794, during a visit to London, where Haydn discovered and – if this sonata is anything to go by – delighted in the sonorities of the English fortepiano. He fully exploited the instrument’s boldness, resonance and range, and expanded technical capabilities, in a sonata which is rich in inventiveness, characteristic wit and joie de vivre. The quirks and frivolity of the outer movements are contrasted with an Adagio whose beautiful cantabile qualities Sarah fully appreciates in an elegant and spacious reading. The translucent clarity of the piano sound in the upper registers is somewhat reminiscent of a fortepiano (though without the latter’s distinctive “twang”!).

By contrast, Mozart’s Sonata in A minor K310 is restless and urgent, full of striking drama and dissonances, but like the Haydn before it, this sonata has a slow movement of operatic lyricism, interrupted by a turbulent middle section. Sarah is sensitive to the music’s chiaroscuro, responding deftly to Mozart’s mercurial emotional shifts and the underlying intensity of this work.

In the Sonata in A, D664 we find Schubert at his most genial, though that affability is offset by the shadowy poignancy and tender intimacy of the middle movement. However, a sunny mood is soon restored in the finale, a movement of joyful light-heartedness. Sarah achieves a persuasive warmth of tone and sensitive phrasing which highlights the glorious song-like melodies in this sonata. There is chiarscuro and drama aplenty here too, and once again, these emotional voltes faces are handled with an eloquent sensitivity (Sarah is not a pianist who exploits the “psychobabble” surrounding Schubert’s life, preferring instead to focus on the details within the score to allow the music to speak for itself).

Hans Gál’s ‘Three Preludes’, composed in 1944, have classical characteristics interleaved with distinctly modern twists: the pithy quaver figurations and playful cascades, and quicksilver wit in the first and third Preludes are redolent of Haydn, while the middle one, “Lento Tranquillo”, recalls Schubert in its graceful melody and introspective demeanour. Sarah brings virtuosic sparkle to the first, a quiet, reflective poetry to the second, and a beguiling humour and lightness of touch to the third, which disappears into the ether in a delicate flurry of notes.

An enjoyable “recital disc”, which takes the listener on a varied and stimulating Austrian musical journey.

‘The Austrian Connection’ was recorded in January 2020 at The Clothworkers Centenary Concert Hall in Leeds, produced, engineered and edited by Simon Fox-Gál, and released on the Avie label

Meet the Artist interview with Sarah Beth Briggs

AV2398-cover-250x250-250x248Schumann: Papillons, Kinderszenen; Brahms: Opp. 117, 118

Sarah Beth Briggs, piano

Avie Records AV2398

27th February 2019 is the centenary of the birth of Denis Matthews, a great pianist from an earlier era of British pianism, who was also a respected teacher and lecturer. Matthews studied with Harold Craxton, (another pianist-teacher from an earlier era, and for those of us d’un certain age, a name forever synonymous, along with Donald Tovey, with ABRSM editions of the Beethoven piano sonatas).

Matthews most longstanding private pupil, the British pianist Sarah Beth Briggs, who commenced her studies with him at the age of eight, recalls her beloved teacher with great fondness and a profound respect for his intelligence, his insightful, fully rounded approach to teaching and music appreciation, and his own superb musicianship.

Denis Matthews was the most incredible inspiration. 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!….So much was about the joys of being brought to great piano repertoire from a much wider musical perspective.

– Sarah Beth Briggs

Matthews was renowned for his unaffected refined pianism. A performer who was more concerned to serve the interests of the music rather than the musician’s ego, his brilliant, questioning mind brought magic and freshness to his interpretations.

DM and SBB by Clive Barda
Composite picture of Denis Matthews & Sarah Beth Briggs by Clive Barda

 

With her new disc Sarah Beth Briggs pays tribute to her beloved teacher through the music that was central to her studies with Matthews and their joint musical passions: two sets of late Brahms piano pieces (opp 117 and 118), and Schumann’s Papillons and his popular Kinderszenen, music which was “the subject of a sort of ‘party game’ whenever Denis visited my family home, when he would begin one of the miniatures on one piano and expect me to take over – from memory! – on the other”. While her debt of gratitude to Matthews is at the heart of Sarah’s new disc, Clara Schumann is the unifying thread in the selection of pieces included here. Kindeszenen was inspired by a comment by Clara about her husband’s childlike nature, while a sense of longing and unrequited love pervades Brahms’ late piano works.

Sarah brings an exquisite intimacy, fluency and warmth to the late Brahms pieces, sensitively capturing their inherent poignancy and haunting tenderness with a refined dynamic palette, a glowing touch, supple rubato and a refreshing musical honesty. The same intimacy is achieved in Schumann’s Kinderszenen: these pieces intended for children become grown up miniatures, reflective and touching, never sentimental. Traumerei, for example, too often the subject of clichéd readings, here finds a plaintive grace and elegant simplicity in Sarah’s discerning hands.

Schumann’s Papillons, which opens the disc, has an expansive grandeur, but Sarah’s exceptional control of sound is always elegant and tasteful, even in the extrovert movements. The overall sound quality of the recording is excellent, the piano rich and colourful across its entire range, with an appealing sweetness in the upper register.

This generous recording is a fitting tribute Sarah’s dear teacher.

Recommended


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Harold Craxton

Craxton Studios, a unique house and ‘Atelier’ on Kidderpore Avenue in leafy Hampstead, north London, was designed and built in 1901 by the artist George Hillyard Swinstead for his family and as his art studio. The house was bought by eminent and much-loved pianist and teacher Harold Craxton and his wife Essie in 1945 after they and their family were bombed out of their home in St. John’s Wood during the Blitz. Their six children included the distinguished oboist Janet Craxton; the painter John Craxton R.A. (who illustrated Patrick Leigh Fermor’s books, amongst other things) and the BBC’s Royal events television director Antony Craxton C.V.O. Professor Harold Craxton O.B.E (Royal Academy of Music) lectured, taught and entertained at the house and accompanied some of the finest singers and musicians of the day. The house became a hub for music and the arts, and was frequented by such artistic luminaries as Dame Peggy Ashcroft, Sir Frederick Ashton, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Winifred Atwell, Dame Janet Baker, Sir John Barbirolli, Sir Lennox Berkeley, Sir John Betjeman, Pierre Boulez, Julian Bream, Benjamin Britten, Lord Kenneth Clarke, Johnny Dankworth, Sir Peter Maxwell Davis, Alfred Deller, Dietrich Fischer-Diskau, Dame Margot Fonteyn, Lucien Freud, Leon Goossens, Gerard Hoffnung, Witold Lutoslawski, Gian Carlo Menotti, Sir Yehudi Menuhin, Sir Henry Moore, Peter Pears, Mstislav Rostropovich, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Stephen Spender and Graham Sutherland. There are vestiges of these illustrious lives and times around the house in photographs, paintings, concert handbills and posters and other memorabilia. But the house is not a museum and still feels like a family home, which gives it a very unique and special atmosphere as a venue for concerts and other musical events.

For me, the name Harold Craxton will always be synonymous with certain ABRSM editions of piano music, and I still have my red cloth-bound three-volume edition of the Beethoven Piano Sonatas, edited by Harold Craxton and Donald Tovey, and a faded mauve paperback of Chopin’s Nocturnes, even though I have now graduated to dusky blue Henle urtext editions.

Visiting Craxton Studios for a Sunday afternoon recital by acclaimed British pianist Sarah Beth Briggs was like stepping back into another era: the antique Bluthner piano, the Arts & Crafts decor, the audience and even the generous high tea after the concert all created an atmosphere of “music for friends amongst friends”, and a reminder of how music was enjoyed over 100 years ago. The concert was in memory of pianist and teacher Denis Matthews, who died in 1988. He was good friends with the Craxton family and visited the house on Kidderpore Avenue many times.

Sarah Beth Briggs studied with Denis Matthews for many years and the concert was her personal tribute to an adored and inspirational teacher. All the pieces she played had a special connection for her with Dennis, and indeed the opening piece, Mozart’s Fantasy in C minor K475, was the first piece Sarah heard Denis perform in a concert in Newcastle, when she was still quite a young child. As she explained in her engaging introduction, it was also the piece that convinced her that Mozart could be as dramatic and colourful as Beethoven. It was a persuasive and authoritative opener and tied in neatly with Beethoven’s ‘Pathetique’ Sonata which followed it, the Beethoven highlighting many aspects of Mozart’s writing.

After such a dramatic first half, Sarah then played a Debussy Prelude, explaining that Denis loved the music of Claude Debussy, and she and he spent many hours working on the first book of Preludes together. Des pas sur la neige is a brief and icy excursion into a snowy landscape, the ascending figure in the left hand in the opening (and shared between the hands later in the piece) suggesting feet trudging through snow. This was followed by Chopin’s Fourth Ballade, prefaced by an introduction by Sarah in which she quoted the late John Ogdon’s description of the work: “it lasts only twelve minutes…..it contains the experience of a lifetime”. Sarah gave a passionate and engrossing account of this perhaps the most popular and complex of all of Chopin’s Ballades.

After the performance, Sarah explained that Denis had always felt it was inappropriate to follow Chopin’s Ballade with an encore, and in his spirit she simply thanked the audience for coming before taking a final curtain call. We were then directed into the dining room of the house where a magnificent high tea was laid out: tiny sandwiches and canapés, petit fours, and several different cakes (most of which were homemade). While the guests were filling their plates with delicacies, the organisers had cleared the studio of chairs and laid out tables with white cloths. Tea was served in the studio where the concert had taken place, providing a very civilised and quaintly old-fashioned end to a very enjoyable afternoon of music making, the pieces played with obvious affection and imbued with very special memories for the pianist. I was delighted to be a guest at such a gathering and to have the opportunity to talk to Sarah afterwards.

Craxton Studios

Craxton Memorial Trust

Sarah Beth Briggs

My review of Sarah’s new recording of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert

Meet the Artist……Sarah Beth Briggs