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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Papillons, Op. 2 [17:04]
Kinderszenen, Op. 15 [22:01]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
3 Intermezzi, Op. 117 [16:47]
6 Klavierstücke, Op. 118 [24:45]
Sarah Beth Briggs (piano)
rec. 2018, Cedars Hall, Wells Cathedral School, UK
AVIE AV2398 [80:54]

As piano recordings go, one thing immediately leapt out at me when I first put on this CD: the exceptional sound quality and the glorious rich tone of the beautiful well-voiced and well-regulated Steinway. Cedars Hall, Wells Cathedral School offers an acoustic and ambience that, in my view, could not be better. This initial experience I hoped would bode well for the performances that follow.

Sarah Beth Briggs is a York-based pianist, a student of the late Denis Matthews. She was a finalist in the BBC Young Musician competition at the age of 11 in 1984. Over recent years she has been an ardent champion of the music of Hans Gál. I have had the pleasure of reviewing her recordings of that composer’s oeuvre (piano concerto, piano quartet and violin sonatinas, and piano trio). Her latest release focuses on three sets of pieces inspired by Clara Schumann, a superb pianist who influenced both her husband Robert and Johannes Brahms. She was Brahms’s muse for over forty years.

Papillons predates Robert’s romantic attachment to Clara and, in the words of Briggs, who has provided her own liner notes, is placed at the start “setting the scene” for what is to follow. It is a suite of twelve short dance movements composed in 1831. The title means ‘butterflies’ in French and the work represents a masked ball, inspired by Jean Paul’s novel Flegeljahre. Briggs keeps everything, for the most part, festive, playful, light-hearted and witty. Tempi seem just right, and rubatos are subtle. There is plenty in the way of dynamic contrasts, and a true sense of abandon in the wilder numbers.

Kinderszenen consists of thirteen pieces, some introspective, others more exuberant. Each has a tale to tell. Throughout, Briggs achieves a marvellous range of tonal colours. She also captures that elusive child-like quality and sense of wonder. Ritter vom Steckenpferd and Glückes genug have an infectious geniality, and in Am Kamin we sense the fire flickering. Träumerei is ardently expressed, whilst Der Dichter spricht is satisfying in both its introspection and reflection.

Brahms’s late piano works date from the early 1890s, the last decade of his life. They are autumnal works, characterized by intimacy and introspection. Yet, their emotional content is wide-ranging. Brahms called them “lullabies to my sorrows”. Briggs brings out the melancholy that underscores them, at the same time savouring their lyrical beauty. I love the way she shows the gentle, soothing character of the first Intermezzo. In No. 2 the falling arpeggio figures, through the succession of tonalities, are negotiated with delicacy and refinement.

I think that the six pieces Op. 118 cover a greater emotional range and display some impressive piano writing. The opening Intermezzo is passionate and turbulent. It is followed by the Intermezzo in A major, a gem of a piece. Briggs is careful not to over-gild the lily, instead employing a tasteful and rationed rubato. The Romanze in F (No. 5) unfolds with dignity, whilst the pianist brings an other-worldly quality to the final piece.

All in all, this is an intelligently constructed recital.

Stephen Greenbank

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