Sarah Beth Briggs opened her piano recital - Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham, UK, 19 December 2022 - with Myra Hess's celebrated transcription of J S Bach's chorale setting known in English as 'Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring'. It raised the interesting question of how to approach something like this. Do you emulate Hess's own recorded performances, or do you take note of more recent historically-informed approaches to Bach? Briggs positioned her reading largely towards the Hess end of the scale. While not a direct copy, her playing included many similar hesitations, which tended to undermine the flow.
To introduce Mozart's C minor Sonata, K 457, she demonstrated a link from Mozart and Brahms to Beethoven by joining a fragment from the Mozart with one from Brahms - Sonata No 2, if I heard rightly - to produce the theme of the second movement of Beethoven's 'Pathétique' Sonata. Spotting connections of this kind is one thing, but playing a Mozart sonata like prototype Beethoven is another matter. The first movement combined some over-forceful moments with passages of crisp playing, and the finale had bubbling energy. Her approach to the second movement was more questionable, with flexible tempi verging on the waywardly indulgent, and a Beethoven manner that tended to mask the very qualities we associate with Mozart.
She seemed more at home in delightful performances of three short Liszt pieces, Waldesrauchen ('Voices of the Woods', or 'Forest Murmurs'), the first of his two Concert Studies, given a barcarolle-like lilt, and two pieces from Weinachtsbaum (Christmas Tree). 'Shepherds at the Manger' (Die Hirten an der Krippe), turns 'In dulci jubilo' into an Italianate pastorale, to which Briggs brought a scherzo-like playfulness, and a mixture of vigour and delicacy. In 'Lighting the Candles on the Tree' (Man zündet die Kerzen des Baumes an) she kept the rippling, scurrying figures light on their feet, and her deft way with the fade-out ending was sheer delight.
Chopin's Prelude Op 28 No 6 was a quiet but somewhat uneasy upbeat to his Ballade No 1, in which the opening quick music was impetuous, maybe a touch over-feverish, but with absolutely secure finger-work. The mood-switches from stormy to skittish were adroitly navigated, and the final gesture was forceful without being pulled out of rhythmic shape, as sometimes happens.
What to end with? It turns out that Briggs has a real flair for jazz, following encouragement from a pupil, she told us. She sent us out with two arrangements by American pianist, composer and teacher Jonny May, swinging her way through 'O Christmas Tree' (the German carol 'O Tannenbaum') and 'Winter Wonderland' to the manner born.
Copyright © 26 December 2022