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As Sarah Beth Briggs’ own booklet notes make clear, Clara Schumann is central to this intriguing, delightfully played and generously filled disc of works by Schumann and Brahms. While Kinderszenen (1838) was inspired by a comment Clara made about Schumann’s occasional child-like nature, Brahms’ valedictory sets were written with his lifelong unrequited love very much in mind. Clara was the first person to see the three Intermezzi and these and the remaining collections (Opp 116, 118 and 119) in turn encouraged her to revisit Kinderszenen. And if Papillons (1831) arose from quite different inspiration (Jean Paul’s novel Flegeljahre), somehow the young Clara Wieck still seems to hover in the background.

Framing the two Brahms sets with those by Schumann works very well, especially the juxtaposition of Brahms’ wistful Op 117 with Papillons, the one seeming to flow naturally from the other. The sequence is sublime, as is Briggs’ nuanced playing, fully alive to the gentle range of colours in the writing. There have been several recordings of the Brahms sets in recent years; Briggs is certainly much to be preferred to the disappointing Ohlsson (Bridge), bringing far more life and sparkle to the music. She may not perhaps be as slick and smooth as Volodos, whose magical display of touch dazzles (aided by glossily engineered Sony sound), but I rather like her slightly more humane approach.

The Schumann pieces are even more contrasted, Papillons covering perhaps the widest ground of all. This is as good an account of this elusive early masterpiece as I have heard, and Briggs is equally involving in the sublime simplicity of Kinderszenen. With first-rate sound from Avie, this is 81 minutes of pianistic heaven.

GUY RICKARDS Read the full review on Agora Classica

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