Friday 10 June 2016

With a world premiere of Hans Gál’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra and a very fine Mozart Piano Concerto No.22, Sarah Beth Briggs’ debut disc for Avie Records is an attractive release on all counts

British pianist, Sarah Beth Briggs was born in Newcastle, England and was a pupil of Denis Matthews (1919-1988). She gained a Hindemith Scholarship to study chamber music in Switzerland with celebrated violist, Bruno Giuranna ((b.1933) and remained in Lausanne for further studies with renowned pupil of Claudio Arrau (1903-1991), Edith Fischer (b.1935).

Her professional career was launched at the age of eleven when she became the then youngest-ever finalist in the BBC Young Musician of the Year. Four years later she gained international recognition as joint winner of the International Mozart Competition in Salzburg.

She has made appearances with the Vienna Chamber Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Hallé, London Mozart Players, London Philharmonic Orchestra, English Chamber Orchestra, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Ulster Orchestra, Manchester Camerata, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, BBC Concert Orchestra and Royal Northern Sinfonia. She has been the featured soloist at major British venues including Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall, London’s South Bank Centre, and the Barbican Centre as well as a series of concerts at San Francisco’s Midsummer Mozart Festival. Her performances have been broadcast internationally on radio and television, while recital work has taken her to Germany, Switzerland, France, Italy and the USA.

She has taught keyboard for many years at the University of York and gives regular masterclasses and chamber music tuition in the UK. She has also taught in Switzerland and the USA.

Sarah Beth Briggs has made a number of recordings including two very fine discs for Semaphore of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert and Debussy and Chopin which I reviewed in October 2013 and January 2015 respectively.

Her debut recording for Avie Records features a world premiere recording of Hans Gál’s Piano Concerto with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and Kenneth Woods , coupled with Mozart’s E flat Piano Concerto, K482 with co-director Bradley Creswick


Hans Gál (1890-1987) was born near Vienna in 1890 and after considerable success in the 1920s, was appointed Director of the Conservatory in Mainz.  Hitler's rise to power in 1933 led to his dismissal and the banning of all his works. He returned to Vienna but was again forced to flee by Hitler's annexation of Austria in 1938. He arrived in Britain and settled in Edinburgh, where he remained active until his death in 1987.

Gál was a prolific composer, his opus numbered works reaching 110 amongst which are four operas, choral works, four symphonies, concertos, chamber works including four string quartets and piano works. Hans Gál’s four symphonies have been recorded by Avie Records with the Orchestra of the Swan conducted by Kenneth Woods.

His Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Op.57 was premiered in 1949 by Otto Schmidtgen with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Rudolf Schwarz.

The Allegro energico ma non troppo opens with a fast moving piano motif over a longer romantic orchestral melody with Sarah Beth Briggs and the Royal Northern Sinfonia under Kenneth Woods bringing a lovely ebb and flow. Soon the soloist takes the orchestral theme before falling quieter and slower. There are moments of greater dynamic contrast before the orchestra tentatively regains a flow over which a lovely delicate, fast moving piano line runs with a lovely swell in the orchestra. This is music full of fantasy, ever changing. There is a fleet rhythmic passage as well as passages of fine sweep over which Briggs brings a lovely fluent line. There is much poetry but above all a real buoyancy.  Later there is a lovely passage for woodwind, later taken by the strings before a limpid solo passage heralds the cadenza that soon finds more of a rhythmic spring. The music gains in tempo before the orchestra re-joins to take the music forward to the coda.

Flute and strings open the Adagio before more woodwind join in the lively melody. The music broadens in the strings as it develops before falling quieter for the entry of the soloist. There is absolutely exquisite playing from this pianist in this lovely melody with woodwind adding a lovely counterpoint. Briggs and Woods shape this music quite beautifully, finding all the natural poetry contained within. Midway the music subtly finds more of a forward drive with many fine moments from the soloist before a lovely hushed passage for flute and violin that weave a lovely line over the orchestra. The piano re-joins to gently take the theme forward with the most lovely weaving of woodwind and strings before finding the hushed coda.

In the Allegretto vivace the orchestra bring a buoyant theme which is taken up by the soloist with a light rhythmic touch. There is wonderful crisp playing from both pianist and orchestra as the music develops. There is a broader passage for piano over a rich orchestral layer. Soloist and orchestra show such fine restraint in the slower sections. The music picks up the opening buoyancy with more energy, Briggs and the orchestra finding a great dialogue as they share the theme. Later the music again finds the opening lightness to skip forward with Briggs providing moments of terrific panache. There are some beautifully light textures in the cadenza before finding greater tempo as the orchestra re-joins to drive forward to a terrific coda.

Whilst romantic in nature, this is a distinctive concerto that brings many fine ideas.  Briggs shows her exquisite tone and touch making this an essential addition to the Hans Gál discography.

Sarah Beth Briggs plays cadenzas written in 1953 by her teacher, the British pianist Denis Matthews for Myra Hess (1890-1965), in her performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s (1756-1791) Piano Concerto No.22 in E flat, K482.

The Royal Northern Sinfonia under co-director, Bradley Creswick bring a robust orchestral opening to the Allegro soon offset by some beautifully balanced passages with lovely harmonies, taut and finely shaped.  Sarah Beth Briggs enters with a lovely poise, nicely phrased with lovely details. She has just the right touch for Mozart as she finds a lovely forward flow so necessary for Mozart. Her more impassioned passages are finely judged, finding a fluency allied to tautness that is most appealing. There are some very fine orchestral passages, bold, crisp and finely balanced before the lead up to the cadenza that highlights the delicacy and flow of the movement, bringing a lovely thoughtfulness, finely shaped by Briggs before the orchestra returns to take us to the coda.

The opening of the Andante brings some lovely playing from the Royal Northern Sinfonia with their minimal vibrato revealing lovely sonorities. There is a lovely transparency to their sound, with the full range of strings heard. When Briggs enters she brings some lovely moments with a beautiful rubato. She develops some lovely, firmer phrases with the woodwind delivering some finely shaped passages that freely flow around each other quite beautifully. Briggs’ control of phrases is quite lovely.

Briggs brings a gentle, restrained opening to the Allegro over a hushed orchestra before quickly taking off, full of taut rhythmic phrases. There are more fine instrumental moments and lovely orchestral textures with these orchestral forces balanced to perfection.  Briggs’ crisp, taut touch is especially attractive along with moments of lovely gentle, seamless flow with the orchestra weaving lovely phrases around the soloist. Together they point up many fine details. There is such a natural quality to this pianist’s playing. There is a terrific flow up to the cadenza to which Briggs brings wonderful control, moulding the music beautifully before leading, with lovely poise and flow, to a beautifully turned coda.

Briggs really has the measure of the Mozart concerto making this new release an attractive proposition on all counts.

The recordings from Hall One, Sage Gateshead, England are first rate, very detailed and providing great depth. There are excellent booklet notes from Kenneth Woods.

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