Thursday 24 September 2015

A captivating recital from James Brawn on a new 2CD release from MSR Classics

British pianist James Brawn has brought us four formidable recordings in his cycle of Beethoven piano sonatas, A Beethoven Odyssey for MSR Classics .

Such is his fine musicianship, his first recital disc for MSR was equally attractive. Now from MSR Classics comes his second recital covering two discs and I must say straight away it is very fine too.

MS 1502

During the 2014-2015 concert season, in addition to playing recitals of Beethoven piano sonatas, James Brawn presented concerts entitled The Time Traveller and his Muse comprising many of his favourite shorter pieces. Brawn thinks of the grand piano as a sort of time machine that allows him to explore the great music of the past. He believes that the task of the interpreter should be to convey the composer’s intentions, though acknowledging other great pianists who have deeply influenced his own approach to various works presented here.

There is a lovely skip in the step of James Brawn’s playing of Domenico Scarlatti’s (1685-1757) Sonata in E major, K.380 (Andante commodo) the work that opens the first CD. This most popular of Scarlatti’s sonatas receives a beautifully poised performance. He brings a lovely rhythmic clarity to Scarlatti’s Sonata in C major, K.159 ‘La Caccia’ (Allegro) always keeping a lively momentum, again positively skipping along.

Next, Brawn selects five preludes from Book I of Johann Sebastian Bach’s (1685-1750) The Well-Tempered Clavier. What a lovely long flowing line Brawn brings to the Prelude in C major, BWV 846. He included this prelude in his first recital for MSR but in this new performance he brings an even finer evenness of touch and subtle control. That evenness of touch is there in the fast moving Prelude in C minor, BWV 847, superbly played with some brilliantly fluent passages. Next is a nicely pointed up Prelude in D major, BWV 850 with a beautifully clear, fluent forward momentum.
The Prelude in E flat minor, BWV 853 brings a quiet poised thoughtfulness, quite lovely before bringing a fine flow to the Prelude in E major, BWV 854.  This is very fine Bach indeed.

The ‘Rondo alla Turca’ from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s (1756-1791) Sonata No.11 in A major, K.331 receives a very fine, crisply played performance that leaves one wanting more, which we get in the form of Mozart’s Fantasia in D minor, K.397, wonderfully controlled with much poetry, Brawn carefully bringing out every little nuance, every mood, moving seamlessly from quieter and introverted moments to outgoing and sunny passages.

Ludwig van Beethoven’s (1770-1827) ‘Für Elise’ (Bagatelle in A minor, WoO.59) brings an effortless charm as this pianist allows a natural flow to take the music forward, revealing this much played piece to be a little gem.

Franz Schubert’s  (1797-1828) Moment Musicale No.3 in F minor, Op.94 / D.780 brings Brawn’s crisp, beautifully lightly sprung touch, a Schubertian delight. There is a lovely gentle rippling opening to the Impromptu No.3 in G-flat major, Op.90 / D.899, Brawn bringing such subtle feeling. The music rises through passages of finely controlled emotion, this pianist finding such colour and depth. An entrancing performance.

James Brawn takes a selection of Frédéric Chopin’s (1810-1849) works to conclude disc 1. The Prelude No.4 in E minor, Op.28 is an inspired follow up to the Schubert Impromptu, here given a subdued performance, intimate in its emotional impact. The stormy emotion of Étude No.12 in C minor, Op.25 takes the listener out of any such intimacy, full of controlled strength and power. The calm opening of
Étude No.3 in E major, Op.10 is beautifully turned, full of passion in the central section.

The Étude No.1 in A-flat major, Op.25, known widely as the Aeolian Harp Etude presumably due to Robert Schumann’s own account of Chopin’s playing of this Etude ‘let one imagine that an Aeolian harp had all the scales and that an artist’s hand had mingled them together…it was rather a billowing of the chord A flat, swelled here and there by the pedal, but through the harmonies could be heard…a wonderful melody…’ Whilst making no such comparison, there is that wonderful billowing of sound here, a lovely touch with subtly controlled rubato. Finally there is a scintillating, clarity and fluent Étude No.5 in G-flat major, Op.10 with beautifully controlled dynamics.

The second CD continues with more Chopin, first the Prelude No.15 in D-flat major, Op.28 ‘Raindrop’ which is delivered with a lovely simplicity. Even when the music builds there is still a fine directness of utterance, yet so wonderfully poetic in the coda. The solitary Prelude in C-sharp minor, Op.45 has a wonderful freedom, Brawn finding his way through the many lovely moments, through many different tempi, finding a new colour in each melodic phrase.

Franz Liszt’s  (1811-1886) Consolation No.3 in D-flat major, S.172 also appeared on this pianist’s first recital disc. That was a gem of a performance yet this new recording is equally fine with a beautiful delicacy, gently fluid, rising so subtly during its course.

James Brawn moves forward to Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) with the famous Waltz in A-flat major, Op.39, No.15, nicely laid out with a lovely gentle rhythm. Even finer is the Intermezzo in A major, Op.118, No.2, exquisitely shaped, finding so many subtle poetic nuances.  Simply superb.

After the fleeting, elusive Edvard Grieg’s (1843-1907) Arietta in E-flat major, Op.12, No.1 the early Étude in C-sharp minor, Op.2, No.1 of Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915) sits well, Brawn slowly allowing the music to rise and fall with a fine rubato.

There are five of Sergei Rachmaninov’s (1873-1943) preludes opening with the Prelude in C-sharp minor, Op.3, No.2 where Brawn brings fine phrasing and pacing. There is a scintillating middle section where this pianist really lets go with moments of supreme pianistic skill, showing a great authority. He reveals a fine emotional edge to the Prelude in G-sharp minor, Op.32, No.12 running through many moods before the lovely coda.

The gentle rocking motion of the Prelude in B minor, Op.32, No.10 is quite lovely as he allows the music to go its way quietly forward before building forcefully with great power and intensity with moments of pure delight as he brings a great sense of freedom. Brawn’s fine pacing, phrasing and rubato reveal so much of the poetry of the Prelude in D major, Op.23, No.4 bringing out the wonderful beauty of the coda.  A silken, fluent, rippling Prelude in G major, Op.32, No.5 shows Brawn’s exquisite touch.

James Brawn brings a terrific rhythmic bounce to Sergei Prokofiev’s (1891-1953) Toccata in D minor, Op.11 with terrific handling of all the discords and dynamics, finely structured and paced –and what a coda.

James Brawn rounds off this very fine recital with a light-hearted, fun loving performance of George Gershwin’s (1898-1937) I Got Rhythm, a brilliant conclusion.  

The more I hear of James Brawn playing the more I am convinced of his special musicianship, an ability to bring a wide variety of music so alive is a very special quality. He has compiled here a fine collection of popular works and infused them with something special. I found myself totally captivated with so much of this recital and given its fine recording made at Potton Hall, Suffolk, England it surely deserves a place on every music lover’s shelf.

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