In concert – Sarah Beth Briggs, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Mozart in Cheltenham

sarah-beth-briggs

Sarah Beth Briggs (piano, above), English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Sawyers The Valley of Vision (2017)
Mozart
Piano Concerto no.22 in E flat major K482 (1785)
Beethoven
Symphony no.6 in F major Op.68 ‘Pastoral’ (1808)

Town Hall, Cheltenham
Monday 25 October 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse; picture of Sarah Beth Briggs by Carolyn Mendelsohn

Tonight’s concert found the English Symphony Orchestra at the Town Hall in Cheltenham, a building of Victorian opulence with an expansive while (surprisingly?) immediate acoustic to match, in a programme featuring classics of their respective media by Mozart and Beethoven.

First, though, a welcome revival for The Valley of Vision – the tone poem by Philip Sawyers that surveys the environs around Shoreham, Kent as were immortalized in the visionary early landscapes of Samuel Palmer. Although the composer had identified five continuous sections, the probing intensity of this music makes for a seamless unfolding which was to the fore in a superbly focussed account as directed by Kenneth Woods (who recently premiered Sawyers’ Fifth Symphony at the Colorado Mahler Festival). No less tangible was the control over this music’s momentum, extending through to a climactic faster section before soon regaining its initial pensiveness. In its subtly evocative aura and persuasive handling of tonality, moreover, this piece can rank with the most significant British orchestral works of the past two decades.

From the six piano concertos that Mozart wrote for his subscription concerts during the mid-1780s, the Twenty-Second is likely the least often heard. A pity, when its relatively expansive form and unpredictability of content are striking even in the context of this most exploratory phase from the composer’s output. Certainly, it is a piece of which Sarah Beth Briggs had the measure – whether in the forceful impetus of its opening Allegro, winsome interplay between soloist and woodwind in the central Andante (arguably the most eloquent among Mozart’s sets of variations) or blithe unfolding of a final Rondo afforded greater pathos by the ‘harmonien’ episode whose interposing was an inspired departure. Nor were Dennis Matthews’s succinct and artfully integrated cadenzas other than an enhancement of what was a fine performance.

Not that there was there anything routine about Beethoven’s Pastoral following the interval, a worthy successor to those performances of the Fifth and Seventh Symphonies that Woods and the ESO have given in recent concerts. Thus, a purposeful though never inflexible take on the opening movement left sufficient room to characterize its reflective asides, with the ‘Scene by the brook’ even more engrossing through its homogeneity of texture and seamless continuity; the closing bird-calls elegantly phrased and enticingly integrated into the whole.

Too rapid a tempo for the scherzo left Woods with insufficient room to point up contrasts in motion with its trio sections, but the Thunderstorm was finely rendered as an extended introduction into the finale – this Shepherd’s Song emerging as the formal and emotional culmination in all respects. Not the least of these strengths was an inevitability of progress – here maintained right through to a coda of serene poise and, in the process, underlining the degree to which any vestige of self has been sublimated into the enveloping cosmic dance.

An absorbing performance as made one look forward to further Beethoven symphonies from this source. Woods and ESO are in Worcester at the weekend with two concerts as part of the Autumn Elgar Festival, the first featuring the masterly Elegy for Strings by Harold Truscott.

Further information on the ESO’s current season can be found at their website. For more on composer Philip Sawyers, visit his website here, while more on pianist Sarah Beth Briggs can be found at her website

On record: Briggs Piano Trio – Hans Gál & Shostakovich: Piano Trios (Avie)

Briggs Piano Trio [David Juritz (violin), Kenneth Woods (cello), Sarah Beth Briggs (piano)]

Gál
Piano Trio in E major Op.18 (1923)
Variations über eine Wiener Heurigenmelodie Op.9 (1914)
Shostakovich
Piano Trio no. 2 in E minor Op.67 (1943)

Avie AV2390 [63’05”]

Recorded 11-13 March 2018 at Wyastone Leys, Monmouth
Producer/Engineer Simon Fox

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

The reappraisal of Hans Gál (1890-1987) continues with his music for piano trio, performed by musicians who have been consistent advocates of the Austrian-born Scottish composer.

What’s the music like?

Both of Gal’s contributions emerged relatively early in his career, when he fast establishing a reputation in his native Vienna as composer and teacher. The Piano Trio is typical in terms of the subtle ingenuity Gál brings to this deceptively orthodox structure. Thus, the Tranquillo opening of the first movement alternates with faster material such that its underlying sonata design becomes cumulative in its formal cohesion. There follows a propulsive scherzo, itself contrasted with an insinuating trio, then a finale whose eloquent theme initiates a series of variations which deftly extends the music’s expressive range on the way to a headlong coda.

Lighter in tone, the Variations on a Viennese ‘Heurigen’ Melody itself wrests a surprisingly varied sequence from a ‘street tune’ whose evidently unprintable text is wittily evoked here.

It was almost inevitable, even so, that Gál’s works should be outfaced by the Second Piano Trio of Shostakovich. Inscribed to the memory of the composer’s friend and confidante Ivan Sollertinsky and inspired by reports of atrocities committed during the Nazi invasion, this may also have been influenced by his recent friendship with Mieczysław Weinberg in its drawing on Jewish folk inflections – particularly in a finale whose ‘dance of death’ material creates an inexorable momentum that is powerfully in evidence here. Nor is there any lack of conviction in the first movement’s gradual intensifying of motion, the scherzo’s sardonic gaiety then the Largo’s simmering pathos in this most direct of Shostakovich passacaglias. The work’s closing bars, too, are all of a piece with what before in their fateful resignation.

Does it all work?

Indeed. The Briggs Piano Trio is an excellent ensemble, and as at home with the methodical elaboration of the Gal as it is with the more intuitive unfolding of the Shostakovich. Earlier recordings of the former are outclassed by this new version, while that of the latter can rank among the finest of recent years. It helps that the sound has a combination of spaciousness and immediacy ideal for this difficult medium, with Kenneth Woods‘s own notes providing a succinct though informed overview to help set these pieces within their rightful context.

Is it recommended?

Very much so. If neither Gál work represents his earlier music at its finest (for which turn to his first two string quartets or the Second Symphony) they offer rewards aplenty, while the Shostakovich is a version to reckon with. Further releases by this group are keenly awaited.

Further listening

You can listen to this new release on Spotify:

Further reading

You can read more about the release on the Avie website, while the video below gives a preview of the disc: