Friday 30 May 2014

James Brawn’s latest recording for MSR Classics is building towards a Beethoven Piano Sonata cycle to reckon with

Following my enthusiastic review of James Brawn’s first two discs in his Beethoven Odyssey series, MSR Classics have now released Volume 3. On this new disc Brawn gives us Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.2 in A major, op.2 No.2, Piano Sonata No.17 in D minor, Op.31 No.2 ‘The Tempest’ and Piano Sonata No. 26 in E flat major, Op.81a ‘Les Adieux’

MS 1467

What makes a great Beethoven interpreter? That’s very difficult to define but James Brawn has all the elusive qualities needed. In all of his Beethoven recordings to date he has shown a fine technique, wonderful control of dynamics, beautiful phrasing, pacing and sense of structure and a fine rubato. Most of all it is his sheer musicianship that shines through.

The Allegro vivace of Piano Sonata No.2 in A major, op.2 No.2 opens with lovely crisp phrases with Brawn showing a playfulness in his approach. His playing is so fluid with moments of terrific forward motion, though always aware of the overall structure. There is a directness of utterance that is entirely beguiling with Brawn grabbing the listener’s ear and carrying him along.

In the Largo appassionato this pianist draws much poetry from this seemingly straightforward largo with such care and thought given to the phrasing and bringing a sense of re-discovery to this early sonata. He controls the tempo and dynamics to perfection.

What a lovely Scherzo the third movement is, light and beautifully textured with a terrific Trio section that flows from the scherzo so well. The Rondo (Grazioso) opens thoughtfully with Brawn drawing so many fine details from the music, showing this to be possibly the finest movement of this sonata. He allows the music to unfold so naturally. There are some fine dynamics as the movement progresses and some more beautifully fluent playing.

Piano Sonata No.17 in D minor, Op.31 No.2 ‘The Tempest’ has a gloriously done opening in the first movement Largo – Allegro (largo) before the faster theme appears. It is how Brawn phrases this music so perfectly that adds so much. The allegro is given playing of bravura but never allowed to run away with itself, yet allowing all of Beethoven’s volatility to be revealed. There is such exquisite poetry in the hushed episodes that contrast so well with the volatile passages. This movement is full of surprise and expectation as he moves from hushed poetry to the more dynamic passages.

Brawn connects the quiet opening of the Adagio with the opening of the first movement as the chord unfolds. It is again Brawn’s superb phrasing that holds the tension and interest of the Adagio, a distinctive movement. He again reveals aspects of Beethoven’s creation that I have not heard before. This is a wonderfully conceived movement that hardly pauses before leading straight into the Allegretto where Brawn lightly moves off at a fine pace with some lovely control of rubato. His dynamics are superbly done in this forward moving music. There is no lack of intensity in the more dynamic moments with playing of considerable power.  

With the Piano Sonata No. 26 in E flat major, Op.81a ‘Les Adieux’ a finely judged Adagio leads into a very fine Allegro with Brawn’s musicianship providing just the right degree of forward flow with fine dynamics. He finds all the little details in the more intricate passages, often lost on many pianists. Again his phrasing is superb.

Brawn brings a rather withdrawn quality to the opening of the Andante espressivo as he slowly allows the music to move ahead with such poetic playing and some wonderfully controlled dynamic passages before running straight into the Vivacissimamente (Das Wiedersehen/Le Retour) bringing such a sudden contrast. Here is playing of terrific strength, fluidity, control and dynamics as well as delicacy aplenty provided by Brawn’s terrific touch, before a terrific coda.

James Brawn’s Beethoven is really rather special, allying fine musicianship with a superb technique that produces Beethoven playing of the highest order.

Beautifully recorded by Jeremy Hayes and Ben Connellan at Potton Hall, Suffolk, England and with excellent notes by Linda Marianiello and James Brawn, this is looking to be a Beethoven Piano Sonata cycle to reckon with.

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