YORK pianist Sarah Beth Briggs has released her tenth album, The Austrian Connection, bringing back memories of her earliest days of making her mark in the classical music world.
“2020 got off to a good start when I spent three days recording the album in early January at Leeds University’s Clothworkers Hall,” she says.
This summer’s new disc on the AVIE Records label features music associated most closely with Briggs during a career that stretches back to teenage days. At 15, she was the joint winner of Salzburg’s International Mozart Competition and Mozart has since been prominent on several of her recordings.
She has established herself too as a performer at home in the Viennese tradition and works by Haydn, Schubert and Brahms form an important part of her discography.
“In a market where one-composer discs have become the norm, I’ve come up with a different line of thought,” says Sarah. “My CDs feel more like my recitals in the concert hall, with both linked threads and the kind of stylistic contrasts that I choose to offer my live audiences.”
The idea for The Austrian Connection began with Sarah’s commitment to the music of Austrian-British composer Hans Gál. “I see Gál as the last great composer to uphold the tonal Austro German tradition,” she says.
“I’ve already made award-winning recordings of his Piano Concerto – a world premiere recording – and chamber music and now, on my latest album, I trace the connection between Gál’s writing and that of his great Austrian forebears, Haydn, Mozart and Schubert.”
Sarah would welcome Gál’s music being featured much more regularly in the concert hall. “I was particularly happy when my recording of the slow movement of the Piano Concerto made it on to Classic FM’s Smooth Classics, as I see it as being just as accessible as the great romantic piano concerto slow movements,” she says.
“Gál has the wit of Haydn, the precision of Mozart and the song-like qualities of Schubert and whenever I present this great music in the concert hall, audiences delight in it.”
Sarah is thrilled by the early responses to The Austrian Connection. “The disc has already been popular with BBC Radio 3 and Scala Radio, as well as featuring in a dedicated programme on Austrian Radio – and it’s also been warmly received both here and abroad,” she says.
As with artists the world over, the Coronavirus pandemic lockdown brought an abrupt halt to Sarah’s performing career. “As the spread of Covid-19 accelerated, watching my concerts being erased from the diary one by one was like seeing a pack of dominoes falling,” she recalls. “Solo recitals, chamber music concerts and my Spanish concerto debut all went, and the future looked bleak.
“Zoom teaching over the internet soon followed, but something else was very necessary as an artistic outlet.”
As with many other international musicians, the only possibility was to record music at home to share with those that love it over the internet. “In dark times, the arts are needed more than ever,” asserts Sarah, who set about making “unedited, basically recorded home videos”.
“It was time to rid myself of my concerns about poor sound and amateurish video production and get on with sharing music. It proved a very cathartic process for me – at last I could share something again.”
Unsurprisingly, Sarah began with a beautiful Hans Gál movement, since when her musical journeys have taken in an eclectic mix of everything from Bach to Albeniz, complemented by a new Prelude and Fugue by her great friend, the composer Christopher Brown, thrown in for good measure.
“It felt a strange process,” says Sarah. “Having had all ten of my commercial CDs produced by Simon Fox-Gál, one of the world’s great producers – and, as it happens, Hans Gál’s grandson! – I was suddenly recording myself on a mini Zoom recorder.
“I synched that sound with visuals made on an iPhone, at first poised on a well-used music stand which had belonged to my mother when she played the violin in schooldays. I really hit the big time when I moved on and purchased a ‘selfie stick’ to secure the iPhone!”
In addition to her solo videos, Sarah has recorded remotely with her violinist duo partner, David Juritz. “Playing Mozart with David in Chiswick and me in York certainly was a novel experience,” she says. “Chamber music is such a huge part of what music is about to me and I’m greatly missing working with others.”
More unusually still, Sarah has made five videos of music for two pianos, taking on the role of both pianists. For a taster, seek out her particularly dramatic offering of the first movement of Brahms’ Sonata for Two Pianos, better known to many as the Piano Quintet, at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xRgxb8loUig
After 20 videos in total, the end of August heralds Sarah’s decision to close the regular series, but they can all be found at: https://www.sarahbethbriggspianist.co.uk/lockdown-videos/
She remains “cautiously optimistic” about the gradual reopening of the arts, not least being delighted that Yorkshire has hosted two of the first classical music events with an audience present: Jamie Walton’s vibrant North York Moors Chamber Music Festival in a marquee at Welburn Abbey, Ryedale, from August 9 to 22, and a pilot concert with the Orchestra of Opera North at Leeds Town Hall on August 28.
‘It has been a very rough time for so many people and those of us in the arts world are certainly among the worst hit, but there is a thirst for live music and theatre out there and we will win the battle and get things back on track,” she says. “A world without live arts is very monochrome – we, as musicians, need our audiences and hope that they need us very soon!’