YORK international concert pianist Sarah Beth Briggs releases her new album, Variations, today.
Available worldwide through AVIE, it follows the success of her Austrian Connections disc, which received a five-star review from Musical Opinion.
“Lyricism and dance are the watchwords of Briggs’s beautifully prepared performances…a player at the height of her powers,” the reviewer enthused.
Recorded at the Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, Wales, with support from the Nimbus Foundation, Variations finds Sarah exploring five sets of Variations by great masters of the genre, some of them relatively rarely heard on the concert platform.
Mozart’s exquisite late Duport Variations pave the way for Beethoven, who, after “‘showing the British what a treasure they have in God Save The King”, threw out the rule book of traditional variation form in his beautifully crafted yet still much overlooked Opus 34 set.
Before concluding with Brahms’s deeply poignant tribute to Robert Schumann, Sarah plumbs the depths of Mendelssohn’s much recorded Variations Serieuses, true to the spirit of the title, which indicates the composer’s desire to go far beyond merely demonstrating a pianist’s virtuoso capabilities.
“For my 50th birthday year recording, I was keen to highlight the progress of Variation form through the classical and romantic eras and wanted to contrast a much performed and recorded set (Mendelssohn’s Variations Serieuses) with some of the lesser known and performed variations by Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms,” says Sarah.
“I first learnt Mozart’s Duport Variations in my teens, and they were a test piece when I played in the first round of the International Mozart Competition in Salzburg. I’ve loved them ever since – there’s so much that’s joyful (and very operatic!) about them!”
Sarah recorded Beethoven’s Seven Variations on God Save The King purely by chance, but now, serendipitously, they could not be better timed for King Charles’s upcoming coronation.
“It’s strange to think I was recording Beethoven’s God Save The King Variations when Queen Elizabeth II was alive, never imagining that the timing of the release would be shortly before King Charles III’s coronation,” she says.
“I’m particularly delighted to have included them in the album programme at what turns out to be such an appropriate moment in history. Beethoven made it clear that he believed the British had a ‘treasure’ in God Save The King and he has a lot of fun embellishing it!”
Sarah continues: “His Opus 34 set is much less frequently performed than the Eroica set that immediately follows it, but my love of these variations goes back to growing up with my own late teacher Denis Matthews’ recording of them. They’re beautifully crafted, yet certainly showing Beethoven the revolutionary – throwing out the rule book of traditional variation form.”
Mendelssohn’s Variations Serieuses need little introduction to classical music lovers, says Sarah. “I’ve had a soft spot for them for as long as I can remember,” she reveals. “I approached them from the early days of studying with Denis with a real wish to understand the importance of Mendelssohn’s title – the word ‘serious’ distinguishing them from the sometimes frivolous variations of the time, which were largely about showing off.
“The key for me here is to view the variations as truly great music, rather than purely for their virtuoso qualities, and much of the excitement of playing them is keeping something in reserve so the whole set can build to a really exciting conclusion.”
Sarah finishes with the Brahms Schumann Variations. “They have almost overwhelming depth and sadness, alongside moments of high drama,” she says. “I see this set as a true masterwork. A wonderful tribute both to Robert Schumann (who had just been admitted to an asylum following his attempted suicide) and to his wife Clara (the dedicatee), who was at the time pregnant with their seventh child.
“It is hard to believe that this is the writing of a 21-year-old man, but certainly indicates Brahms’ great genius. It feels a suitably great work with which to conclude this particular musical journey.”
Discussing her performance plans for Variations, Sarah says: “While I have previously performed the works that feature in my album individually, I’ve chosen to wait to perform a programme built on a larger part of this release until the autumn season.
“I look forward to performing Variations Plus (featuring some of the disc programme alongside other works that take the form of variations but aren’t actually titled as such!) in numerous venues throughout the UK.”
Sarah’s Yorkshire appearance will be in November as part of the Music In The Round series at the Sheffield Crucible. Watch this space for more details.
“Part of my programme planning has centred around linking my great interest in Hans Gál (whose music I have made several recordings of) with my latest Variations project, so at the heart of my Variations Plus programme is Hans Gál’s Piano Sonata from 1927, which includes a set of variations as its rather haunting third movement,” she says.
“That ties up nicely with my first live performance of the Gál Piano Concerto (which I made the world premiere recording of) later this year in Germany with the Hofer Symphoniker.”
See Sarah Beth Briggs’s album preview below:
Sarah Beth Briggs: Variations
Mozart: Variations on a Minuet by Duport, K573
Beethoven: Seven Variations on God Save The King, WoO78
Beethoven: Six Variations on an Original Theme in F major, Op 34
Mendelssohn: Variations Sérieuses, Op 54
Brahms: Variations on a theme by Robert Schumann, Op 9