Sarah Beth Briggs, piano
Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham
December 18 2022
Review: William Ruff
Sarah Beth Briggs: a pianist of charisma and refinement
Sarah Beth Briggs knows how to engage with an audience. She didn’t only praise the venue (always a good move with RCH loyalists) but had clearly fallen in love with its Steinway, a piano that sounds as good as it looks…and it looks very splendid indeed. And then she started chatting to the audience about the programme she was going to play, in the sort of easy, warm, informative way which always endears performers to the audience’s heart. Throughout the hour-long performance we were offered personal insights as well as illuminating descriptions of the music. It all went down very well indeed.
The programme was predictably Christmassy but the precise choice of festive fare came as a surprise. The starting-point was the famous arrangement of Bach’s Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring by Dame Myra Hess, creating a wonderful sense of stillness for anyone arriving via streets packed with last-minute shoppers. Later she turned to Liszt and showed that his music isn’t all virtuoso fireworks. Two pieces came from his suite for Christmas called Weihnachtsbaum, written for his granddaughter Daniella. The first, Shepherds at the Manger, is simply a beautiful tune which floats hypnotically, doesn’t develop and is content just to create a joyous, peaceful atmosphere. The second, Lighting the Candles on the Christmas Tree, apparently transforms children into elf-like creatures, busily engaged with their festive task which culminates in a tree blazing with light.
The recital wasn’t all about festive fun, however. Sarah Beth Briggs included two big works in her programme: the first being Mozart’s C minor Sonata, one of the few works he wrote in a minor key and the only one of his keyboard sonatas which fully exploits the piano’s full range of notes and dynamics. She gave a searching performance, contrasting the dramatic statements and short lyrical phrases of the outer movements whilst clearly revelling in the impatient interruptions of the finale. The central Adagio could have come straight from one of Mozart’s operas, a lovely melody allowed to unfold and breathe.
The piece that really flexed Sarah’s musical muscles was Chopin’s first Ballade, not only because of its fistfuls of notes (she admitted the piece isn’t kind to either the pianist or the piano…) but also because it tells an epic story, albeit one that can never be pinned down. Here was playing that made you sit up and take notice from the start: gorgeously lyrical themes together with much that is wild and feverish. The whirlwind coda was an extraordinary feat of virtuosity: dazzling clarity together with exhilarating power.
And then Santa returned via jazzy arrangements of O Christmas Tree and Winter Wonderland. They brought to an end a recital which featured playing of insight and refinement and a programme that combined the serious and the light-hearted in exactly the right proportions.
Sarah Beth Briggs, playing in the Sunday Piano Series at Nottingham’s Royal Concert Hall