SARAH BETH BRIGGS
DENIS MATTHEWS CENTENARY PIANO RECITAL
THE SANCTUARY, QUEEN’S CROSS CHURCH, ABERDEEN
Monday 7th October, 2019
Denis Matthews (1919 – 1988) was an English concert pianist, musicologist and teacher. This year sees the centenary of his birth. Sarah Beth Briggs, his most longstanding pupil, is currently giving recitals around the UK in Denis’s memory. On Monday 7th October, she was the guest performer in Queen’s Cross Church at the first of a new season’s six concerts in the subscription series for Aberdeen Chamber Music Concerts.
Nearly all of the works in the programme were pieces that Denis Matthews had played in concerts, had possibly recorded and was particularly fond of. Sarah Beth Briggs gave us background information on Matthews’s relationship with the music as well as details to look out for in the music she was about to play. My own connection with Denis Matthews is simply the title pages of the Associated Board editions of the Mozart Piano Sonatas on top of my piano. I have been known to plonk my way through the K 545 but not many of the others. In the company of Sarah Beth Briggs however we were in a different world all together.
She opened her recital with a performance of Bach’s ‘Prelude and Fugue in B flat minor’. Some in the audience may have remembered performances of all 48 Preludes and Fugues shared between Andrei Gavrilov, Nikolai Demidenko, Angela Hewitt and my favorite Joanna MacGregor. Their performances proved just how Bach’s music can succeed over a whole variety of piano styles.
Sarah Beth’s performance was slightly towards the romantic side. Faster than some, with just a little rubato and a great deal of expressiveness in the phrasing. I don’t care what anybody else thinks. I really liked it. It suited the spirit of Bach and above all, it suited the piano.
Lighter, freer and splendidly supple was her performance of the opening movement of Mozart’s ‘Piano Sonata in F, K 332. Sarah Beth in her introduction said that the spirit of Mozart the opera composer runs through much of his music and she highlighted this sonata in particular. I could see this in the way that she brought out the strength of the melodies and occasional outbursts of drama in lower passages.
The slow movement was strong on melody and there were moments of that in the finale too along with crisp fast flowing passages delivered with dazzling fingerwork from Sarah Beth. It was as much of a pleasure to watch that fingerwork as to listen to the music. That was to become far more astounding later in the programme.
Before the interval we enjoyed Sarah Beth’s strong and muscular performance of the opening movement of Beethoven’s two movement ‘Piano Sonata in e minor’. Clangorous chords followed by busy complex fingered passages were marvellous and then the second movement which the composer labelled “with a very vocal style of playing” was exactly what we got from Sarah Beth. It was imbued with the very spirit of the song.
Sarah Beth has become an expert proselytiser for the music of Hans Gál. Regular attendees of concerts by Aberdeen Chamber Music Concerts will surely remember our fabulous Hans Gál weekend in March of 2016. Today Sarah Beth introduced Gál’s ‘Sonatina in a minor op. 58 no. 2’. There are four movements, three of them very fast and crammed full of notes. Can I be allowed to call this the Kalashnikov of music. Wow! It is difficult to find words to describe this performance. It was here that watching Sarah Beth’s hands whizzing over the keyboard grabbing whole handfuls of notes was an eye-popping thrill. The slow movement marked Arioso was lovely and Hans Gál also manages to make the firework movements really attractive to listen to as well as to watch.
With almost as many notes, though lighter and beautifully transparent, was Sarah Beth’s performance of Ravel’s three movement ‘Sonatine’. The finale marked Animé was dazzlingly exciting and beautiful too.
Sarah Beth concluded her recital with the ‘Four Pieces op. 119’ by Brahms, the Intermezzo in b minor before which Sarah Beth quoted the words of Clara Schumann that the music though melancholic and teeming with dissonances still gave her much pleasure. This was followed by two more Intermezzi one in e minor and one in C Major. The final piece was a rich and muscular Rhapsody in Eb Major. Strength and fluency were the watchwords of Sarah Beth’s performance of Brahms’s music.
She earned a thunderous ovation from Monday’s audience to which she responded with a delicately beautiful encore, the Traumerei op. 15 No. 7 from Schumann’s Kinderszenen. I can just about play this one, but not as beautifully as Sarah Beth Briggs.