Monday, 24 March 2014

James Brawn gives us one of the finest recital discs I have heard for a long time from MSR Classics

I recently reviewed the first two releases of James Brawn’s Beethoven Odyssey, a survey of Beethoven’s piano Sonatas which I found to be outstanding performances.

I’m pleased to have the opportunity to review a recent recital disc by this fine pianist, also from MSR Classics featuring works by Bach, Liszt, Mussorgsky and Rachmaninov.
MS 1501

This disc opens with a tremendous performance of Bach’s Chaconne from the Violin Partita No.2 in D minor, BWV 1004 arranged by Busoni. Brawn’s distinctive phrasing in the opening has a lovely considered quality with beautifully controlled dynamics and pacing, allowing the music to slowly unfold. Brawn brings so many varying touches in playing that are truly gripping from start to finish. There is a terrific rhythmic section, impressive scales as well as sensitive and thoughtful moments in this wonderfully structured performance. Brawn has a fabulous technique but above all he is a superb musician.

James Brawn goes straight into Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz No.1, S.514 ‘The Dance in the Village Inn’ with gusto. There are fine rhythmic qualities and some beautifully delicate playing between the bravura episodes.  Brawn quietly builds the music in the less fiery passages whilst making the work appear to have more depth than I have ever heard. There is a truly great coda.

This pianist brings us an affecting performance of Liszt’s Consolation No.3 in D flat major, S.172, with Brawn’s lovely silken touch and a gentle ebb and flow, beautifully controlled. A gem of a performance.

Brawn brings many of these qualities to Mussorgsky’s Picture at an Exhibition. The opening Promenade has lovely chords underlying a directness of presentation whilst Gnomus shows Brawn drawing a vivid picture. Promenade returns with this pianist giving one of the most sensitive of performances before The Old Castle, with a subtle underlying rocking motif as Brawn plays the troubadour’s song, so atmospheric with this pianist’s nuanced and subtle rubato that gently grips the listener. When Promenade again returns, there is a terrific piano tone as Brawn sounds out the bold chords of the theme. Tuileries brings more fine phrasing, showing how Brawn brings exquisite care to even this little section.  The massive chords of Bydlo are subtly offset by carefully controlled gentler chords that brings so much more to this piece, calculating the steady rise and fall brilliantly. Promenade brings out all of Mussorgsky’s subtle tonal variations before a terrific, slightly manic depiction Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks, showing more of Brawn’s fine playing.

With Samuel Goldberg and Schmuyle, Brawn characterises these two portraits – a rich and poor Jew – perfectly, showing that, instead of using Pictures merely as a demonstration of piano technique, Brawn has used them as little portraits or tone poems. Promenade brings the same control and directness of the opening with Brawn’s subtle care in varying the dynamics throughout. Limoges – The Market Place has a wonderful ‘chattering’ feel to it, perfectly depicting the market atmosphere, whilst Catacombs brings a quite alarming sense of atmosphere. Con mortuis in lingua mortua gives little relief in this haunting performance. It is rare to find a pianist that can create such an atmosphere with such subtle means. We are shaken into life with Baba Yaga – the Hut of Fowl’s Legs, spectacularly played before The Great Gate of Kiev that has all the stately grandeur required. One can almost hear the ringing of massive iron bells. There is a rather haunting passage before the bells peal aloud. Another quieter section has beautifully overlaid passages that quietly peal before the bells ring out loudly again. This is another fine performance from James Brawn.

Brawn opens Rachmaninov’s Prelude in B minor, Op.32 No.10 with a quiet, direct, melancholy feeling, a directness of approach that Rachmaninov would surely have approved of. He then proceeds to slowly build the drama with formidable playing and a coda that is pure magic.

The subtly shifting harmonies of Bach’s Prelude in C major from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1, BWV 846 are a delight. What a wonderful end to this terrific recital.

This must be one of the finest recital discs I have heard for a long time. It is worth having for the superb Bach Chaconne alone – but then there are so many other fine things on this recording.

With an excellent recording from Potton Hall, Suffolk, England from the expert team of Jeremy Hayes and Ben Connelan this new release is highly recommended.

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