Monday, 10 March 2014

James Brawn shows fine musicianship in outstanding performances of Beethoven sonatas on releases from MSR Classics

No sooner had I reviewed Rudolf Buchbinder’s magnetic performances of Beethoven’s piano concertos with the VPO in a live cycle recorded by Sony along comes recordings of Beethoven Piano Sonatas from a remarkable pianist, James Brawn

Born in England in 1971, Brawn’s career began in New Zealand, where he commenced piano lessons at the age of seven. He played Bartók on New Zealand television and won his first awards in Auckland. The family moved to Australia the following year, where he studied with Margaret Schofield, Ronald Farren-Price and Rita Reichman, winning major prizes at the Melbourne Eisteddfods competitions, and the Hephzibah Menuhin Memorial Scholarship. In 1987, Brawn reached the concerto final of the ABC Young Performers Awards, which led to concerts with the Adelaide and Melbourne Symphony Orchestras. He continued study with Rita Reichman in Philadelphia on a grant from the Australia Arts Council, and in 1988 received a full scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music, where he won many recital awards, including the Beethoven Prize and 20th Century Prize.

At age 19, Brawn won the Keyboard Final of the Royal Over-Seas League Music Competition, which resulted in solo recitals at Queen Elizabeth Hall and chamber music partnerships at music societies and festivals in the UK. From 1993-2001, Brawn taught piano and chamber music at King’s College and St. John’s College schools in Cambridge, during which time he also performed in recital with his wife, soprano Susan, and sister, oboist Victoria. These collaborations led to performances at the Cambridge Elgar Festival and the Purcell Room in London. From 1996-1998, Brawn and sister, Victoria, also received sponsorship from the Countess of Munster Recital Scheme. In 2001, he returned to Australia to take up a piano teaching position at the highly regarded Scotch College, where he co-founded the biennial Scotch College Piano Festival. Whilst teaching there, he appeared in recital at the Melba Festival, Melba Conservatorium, Monash University and at music society events throughout Victoria.

Brawn has recorded for RTHK Radio4 in Hong Kong, ABC Classic FM, and 3MBS radio in Melbourne. He returned to the United Kingdom in 2010 and is currently based in the Cotswolds. He performs regular solo recitals in venues in Birmingham, Cheltenham, Chichester and London, including St. James’s Piccadilly, Blackheath Halls, Foundling Museum, The Forge, Royal Over-Seas League and St. Olave Church. Significant engagements include the Bösendorfer concert series at St. Mary Magdalene and the ‘Pianists of the World’ series at St.Martin-in-the-Fields. Brawn has performed in master classes with András Schiff, Tamás Vásáry and Stephen Kovacevich, and studied chamber music with members of the Amadeus and Chilingirian Quartets. Recital performances have taken him to Hong Kong, Brunei, Paris, Sicily and New Orleans.

James Brawn has so far recorded two Beethoven sonata discs for MSR Classics entitled A Beethoven Odyssey. Volume 1 brings us Piano Sonatas No.1 in F minor, Op.2 No.1, No.3 in C major, Op.2. No.3 and No.23 in F minor, Op.57 ‘Appassionata’.

The Allegro of Piano Sonata No.1 in F minor, Op.2 No.1 opens with some lovely crisp phrasing and fine rubato. I like the way Brawn builds the little climaxes, nothing showy but beautifully done. With the Adagio, Brawn achieves a natural flow and cohesion that is most appealing. It is beautifully paced, bringing out many subtleties and with a fine coda. Such is Brawn’s careful choice of tempi in the preceding movements that the Menuetto (Allegro) works so well, particularly with such fine control of dynamics. The lovely flowing trio section provides just the right contrast. There is a terrific Prestissimo where Brawn gives full reign to Beethoven’s forward thrusting drama, yet shows so much control and finesse. This is very fine playing indeed.

Piano Sonata No.3 in C major, Op.2. No.3 shows such care in the hesitant opening of the Allegro con brio before the crashing chords of the allegro appear. There is some formidable playing from Brawn in the faster moving passages but he picks up on all the inner beauty of the quieter passages. He has such a fine technique with, again, the tempo just right, allowing the music to flow and naturally unfold before a terrific coda. The Adagio brings a magical sense of poetry with beautifully shaped phrases and wonderfully controlled dynamics in the bolder passages that burst forth. The joyous Scherzo (Allegro) skips along in Brawn’s hands, the terrific intricate rhythms brilliantly done. There is a great feeling of spontaneity here. A really dazzling Allegro assai concludes with some brilliant touches towards the coda.

There is a finely judged opening to the Allegro assai – Più allegro of the  Piano Sonata No.23 in F minor, Op.57 ‘Appassionata’ with no false emphasis before the dramatic chords come. There is more fine rubato, well controlled dynamics and a sure understanding of Beethoven’s architecture. The music fairly hurtles to the coda with some very fine playing. There are so many fine details as the Andante con moto slowly works its way forward, beautifully paced and structured by this pianist. Brawn brings terrific energy to the Allegro ma non troppo – Presto with some glorious playing, picking up on all the nervous energy and with a truly stormy, virtuosic coda.

Volume 2 of James Brawn’s Beethoven Odyssey on MSR Classics brings us Piano Sonatas No.8 in C minor, Op.13 ‘Pathétique’, No. 14 in C sharp minor, op.27. No.2 ‘Moonlight’, the two ‘Leichte’ Sonatas No.19 in G minor, Op.49. No.1 and No.20 in G major, Op.49. No.2 as well as Sonata No. 21 in C major, op.53 ‘Waldstein’.

MS 1466

There is an exquisitely phrased opening to the Grave – Allegro molto e con brio Piano Sonata No.8 in C minor, Op.13 ‘Pathétique’ that draws one in immediately with, once again, Brawn bringing his fine sense of pace and dynamics. When the allegro arrives it is so fleet and full of forward momentum with some phenomenal playing, full of contrast, colours and nuances. In the Adagio cantabile it is lovely how Brawn allows the music to flow in this real cantabile melody, always keeping the forward flow. Despite the lighter opening to the Rondo (Allegro), as the movement progresses, Brawn provides plenty of storm and angst, though never ignoring the subtler details.

With the Piano sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor, op.27. No.2 ‘Moonlight’ Brawn achieves a quietly glowing Adagio Sostenuto, full of magic, never allowed to flag and with a fine gentle outpouring of feeling. He takes up a gently buoyant tempo in the Allegretto and trio, leading so well out of the Adagio and showing how Beethoven’s emotional state was not much removed from the Adagio. There is lovely pacing and subtle rubato, so carefully and beautifully done. The emotion really breaks out in the Presto agitato with Brawn rarely holding back, but when he does, it adds so much to the tension. This is a terrific ‘Moonlight Sonata.’

Even in the two ‘Leichte’ Sonatas, often termed Sonatinas, Brawn delivers such subtle little nuances. The Andante of No.19 in G minor, Op.49. No.1 is given a performance full of charm, so fleet and beautifully phrased and the Rondo (Allegro) receives crisp playing, full of rhythmic style and pulse. An absolute delight. The Allegro ma non troppo of No.20 in G major, Op.49. No.2 seems almost to look back to Haydn with Brawn showing every attraction of this light and intricate allegro. The charming Tempo di Menuetto has a lovely flow with Brawn showing how Beethoven could write with a direct simplicity.

The opening of the Allegro con brio of the Piano Sonata No. 21 in C major, op.53 ‘Waldstein’ has a pulsating, magnetic tension that anticipates the rhythmic drama to come. For all his terrific virtuoso display, Brawn brings so much more in colour, texture and little nuances, not to mention his superb rubato.

The gentle Introduzione (Adagio molto), apparently replaced a much longer Andante. In Brawn’s hands it provides a mesmerising and marked contrast to the outer movements. It is lovely the way the adagio molto rolls straight into the Rondo (Allegretto moderato) – Prestissimo with the same gentle feel, only now more flowing and resolute. Brawn again provides some beautifully nuanced colours, textures and dynamics before the five final, powerful chords bring this sonata to an end. What a fine ‘Waldstein’ to end this disc.

James Brawn shows so much fine musicianship making these outstanding performances in every way. They are beautifully recorded at Potton Hall, Suffolk, England. I look forward with great anticipation to future releases in this Beethoven Odyssey.

Watch out for a review of a James Brawn recital disc of works by Bach, Liszt, Mussorgsky and Rachmaninov coming soon.

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