A Beethoven Odyssey, Volume 9

by Bill Heck

Beethoven: Piano Sonatas 28, 29. James Brawn, piano. MSR Classics MS 1473

I had mixed feelings as I started listening to this, the last volume in James Brawn’s traversal of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. Not mixed feelings about the performances: see below for more on that front. No, it was just that we have reached the end of this excellent cycle. Those who have seen reviews of several earlier volumes by our colleague JJP and me will recall that we were, to say the least, favorably impressed. Naturally I was eager to hear the latest. But it was a bit like opening that last present at the birthday party when I was a little kid: the cycle is complete; there’s nothing to anticipate, no wonderful surprises to look forward to. 

Those who have followed this cycle know that these volumes have not comprised a cycle in the common sense of starting with Number 1 and counting up; instead, the volumes have been a series of programs, each consisting of two or three sonatas chosen for musical reasons. This final volume does include two consecutive sonatas, though, and the two present both similarities and interesting contrasts.

No. 28 usually is considered the first of Beethoven’s “late period” sonatas; I had not heard it in some time, so it was fun to be reacquainted. To me, the first movement sounds improvisatory, bringing to mind a pianist jamming, playing with a series of themes and riffs – although in this case, the jam is at an otherworldly musical level. (Readers who are taken aback at such a comparison should feel free to dismiss this as crazy rambling.) It is astonishing to realize that Beethoven was composing things like this despite his near-total deafness. More generally, this work, as the excellent booklet points out, looks back to earlier sonatas in terms of structure, but a few moments listening reassures us that Beethoven is probing more deeply, is experimenting more freely than in those previous works. At the same time, the mood here is fresh and light in what is a rather short sonata (Brawn completes it in just over 20 minutes). Perhaps the most likely listener reaction to this work is simple joy.

No. 29 (Hammerklavier) is harder to categorize. Beethoven seems to throw in everything, and the technical demands on the pianist are outrageous:  the work not only may be the most difficult of Beethoven’s piano compositions but is one of the more difficult by any composer. Moreover, this is a huge, sprawling work; Brawn’s timing here is about 48 minutes.

I mentioned earlier the favorable reception of previous volumes in this series by JJP and me, so it will come as no surprise that I am more than satisfied with this one as well. Indeed, this review can be relatively brief because most of what I could say would simply repeat positive comments that I’ve made earlier. As in the previous volumes in the series, there is a certain rightness about Brawn’s playing: upon listening, one is left with a feeling that yes, of course, that’s exactly the way it should be done. It’s always possible to hear what’s going on: Brawn eschews excessive use of the sustain pedal, his articulation is clear without being so ostentatious as to distract from the music. I don’t mean to say that the performances are without character; rather, in each case, the “character” seems to fit well with the work being performed. 

Beethoven in later life

And I certainly don’t mean to say that Brawn, or anyone else, plays any of the sonatas, particularly the late ones and even more particularly the Hammerklavier, in the only possible way. As just one example, a point that struck me upon listening was the range of possible approaches in the fourth and final movement of the Hammerklavier. In the central section of this movement, the titanic fugue, it strikes me that Brawn focuses on clarifying inner details of the intertwining voices. Contrast this with, say, the early 1950’s recording by Rudolph Serkin (which miraculously still sounds quite good), with its stricter adherence to, and even emphasis on, an almost metronomic tempo. Again, I don’t mean that one fails to play in tempo or the other obscures the notes, just that one performance can’t do everything, especially is such a formidable work as this. Which is “correct”, which is “better”? Obviously neither, they are simply different, and both are the products of deep insight (and undoubtedly of incredibly difficult work during practice sessions).

Given the number of Beethoven sonata cycles out there, it would be silly to proclaim one “the best” or to suppose that one set of interpretation has said everything that there is to say in such musically rich works. But Brawn’s entire odyssey is one to which I shall return often.

As usual in this series, the recorded sound is excellent, with the rich tones of the Steinway D presented in all their glory. As the booklet notes, Beethoven “…often complained about the limitations of the piano, proclaiming…’It is and remains an inadequate instrument’”. Not to denigrate the often insightful recordings relying on “original instruments” or copies thereof, but I can’t help wondering what Beethoven would have thought of the contemporary use of period instruments to allow us to hear that with which he was so dissatisfied. At least in this case, I have to think that Beethoven would have approved of the newer instrument.

In summary, if you’re not familiar with Brawn’s Beethoven Odyssey, now would be a good time to check it out. Start anywhere and enjoy some fine performances of this wondrous music. Oh, and that business that I mentioned earlier about nothing to look forward to? Brawn’s Facebook postings indicate that, for now, after twelve years of work on this project, he wants to spend more time on performance and music education (one of his great passions). That’s understandable. But I hope that we’ll see something new in the way of recordings in the not too distant future.

Rachmaninoff/Gershwin Transcriptions by Earl Wild (CD Review)

by Karl Nehring

Rachmaninoff: Songs transcribed for the piano by Earl Wild - Dreams Op. 38 No. 5The Little Island Op. 14 No. 2Midsummer Nights Op. 14 No. 5O, Cease Thy Singing Op. 4 No. 4On the Death of a Linnet Op. 21 No. 8Do Not Grieve Op. 14 No. 8; George Gershwin: Three Preludes; Earl Wild: Fantasy on Porgy and Bess. John Wilson, piano. AVIE Records AV2635

Sadly enough, Earl Wild (1915-2010) has become somewhat a forgotten figure among followers of classical music. Perhaps Bill Heck and I are a bit more tuned into his name than most, because for many years, Wild resided in Columbus, Ohio, where Bill and I both attended graduate school and where we both live today. In addition, we are both quite fond of his recordings of the Rachmaninoff piano concertos, which he originally made for Reader’s Digest with Jascha Horenstein conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and have subsequently been rereleased on other labels including Chandos and Chesky. Wild was a remarkable virtuoso who was skilled not only as a performer (he was the first American pianist ever to be invited by Arturo Toscanini to perform as soloist with the New York Philharmonic) but also as a transcriber, particularly of the music of Gershwin and Rachmaninoff.  Interestingly enough, accordion to Wikipedia, Wild also holds the distinctions of being both the first pianist ever to perform a recital on U.S. television (1939) and evert to stream a performance on the internet (1997). He is also the only pianist ever to have been invited to the White House to perform before six consecutive U.S. Presidents: Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson. What a career! 

On this release from the American pianist John Wilson (not to be confused with the English conductor of the same name), we hear Wild's transcriptions of seven songs by Rachmaninoff, three brief preludes by Gershwin, and then Wild’s own Fantasy on Porgy and Bess. The Rachmaninoff transcriptions are elegant and expressive, richly romantic as you might expect. Wilson clearly loves this music, and that love comes through in his playing, which is clear, confident, and convincing. These are songs, imbued with melody and emotional overtones; however, they are not sappy or sentimental, but are carefully crafted pieces of serious music. The three Gershwin Preludes are in turn bouncy, moodily reflective, and finally a bit skittish. None, however, sound legitimately jazz-like or particularly inspired. At least to my ears, this is not top-drawer Gershwin. YMMV.

The needle on the old Gershwin-O-Meter bounces back up the scale with Wilson’s rendition of Wild’s take on Gershwin, however – the Fantasy on Porgy and Bess is in an entertaining romp through the familiar themes from Gershwin’s tuneful work. You can tell that Wild enjoyed putting these tunes together for the keyboard, and you can tell that Wilson enjoys playing them for us at the keyboard. In the liner notes, which are based on a conversation between Wilson and the English music broadcaster Jeremy Nicholas, Wilson recalls that it was Gershwin’s music that first lured him into classical music. He goes on say, “the first Earl Wild piece I learned was his Porgy and Bess. I just loved it. I’d played most of it since I was 19, so when I came to record it, it was in my heart. I think it’s perhaps his perhaps his best crafted transcription.” 

The liner notes, although not extensive, are heartfelt and revealing. And as we have come to expect from AVIE, the engineering is first-rate, capturing the sound of Wilson’s Steinway in fine fashion. If you are a fan of melody, this release is one that should be right up there on your audition list. 

3 Shades of Blue/Kind of Blue (Book/CD Review)

by Karl Nehring 

Kaplan, Janes. 3 Shades of Blue: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, and the Lost Empire of Cool. New York: Penguin Press, 2024. 

Miles Davis: Kind of BlueSo WhatFreddie FreeloaderBlue in GreenAll BluesFlamenco Sketches. Miles Davis, trumpet; John Coltrane, tenor saxophone; Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, alto saxophone; Wynton Kelly, piano (Blue in Green only); Bill Evans, piano (all other tracks); Paul Chambers, bass; Jimmy Cobb, drums. Columbia/Legacy CK64935


In a couple of recent posts I have shared some thoughts by jazz musicians concerning the influence of classical music on jazz (you can find those posts here and here). In his new book, 3 Shades of Blue, James Kaplan tells the interlocking life stories of three key figures in jazz: trumpeter Miles Davis, saxophonist John Coltrane, and pianist Bill Evans. Those with even a passing knowledge of jazz history are no doubt familiar with at least one of those three names, while those with a bit more knowledge will likely recall all three from their appearance on what today is probably the most widely known jazz album in history, Miles Davis’s landmark 1959 recording, Kind of Blue. Of course, all three musicians released other notable albums, such as Davis’s Sketches of SpainBirth of the CoolIn a Silent Way, and Bitches Brew; Coltrane’s CrescentGiant Steps, and A Love Supreme; and Evans’s Sunday at the Village VanguardEverybody Digs Bill Evans, and Conversations with Myself.


Those with an interest in jazz will gain an insight into the musical and biographical influences that contributed to the sound of those and other recordings by not only these three but other jazz luminaries as Kaplan weaves the three biographies into an overview of the development of different forms of jazz such as swing bebop, post-bop, cool jazz, modal jazz, harmolodics, and free jazz. But of special interest to fans of classical music might be to learn that all three of these jazz giants were influenced by classical music. For example, Kaplan writes that one piece that Miles almost became obsessed with was Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli’s 1957 recording of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G… Miles wanted to put wide-open space into his music the way Ravel did. He wanted to use different scales the way Khachaturian, with his love for Asian music, did… Davis told Evans that the new album he had in mind would make use of some of the Western classical themes they’d analyzed together…”


Evans had been classically trained, but ultimately decided that he wanted to become a jazz pianist. He moved to New York, the hub of jazz, determined to try to make the transition. As Kaplan describes his tiny apartment, “on the music stand were pieces by Chopin, Ravel, and Scriabin, as well as Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier. When he practiced he loved to play classical and then modulate into improvised jazz. The tempo turning to idiosyncratic rhythm, the harmonies close cousins to those in the European music.”  (An interesting fact not mentioned in Kaplan’s book is that at some point later in his career, Evans struck up a friendship with the legendary Canadian classical pianist Glenn Gould; in fact, Evans recorded his famous overdubbed solo album Conversations with Myself using Gould’s piano.)


As for Coltrane, Kaplan observes that “almost everyone associated with John Coltrane took note of his voracious appetite for learning about music in general and his instrument in particular… Like Charlie Parker, he made a point of learning to play in every key; also like Parker, and like Miles, he listened broadly and deeply, not just to jazz but to the modern Europeans. ‘Trane and I,’ Jimmie Heath recalled, ‘used to go to the Philadelphia Library together and listen to Western classical music – they had the headphones, you know. We would play Stravinsky and people like that and listen to all this music we could.’”


There.is of course much, much more to be found in this deeply researched, engagingly written book that lays out the life stories of these three giants of jazz who combined to give us one of the great recordings of the twentieth century. If you are a fan of Kind of Blue, Kaplan’s book will give you an inside look into its creation and creators. But if you are one of the few people who have not by now given a listen to Kind of Blue, you really ought to give it a listen. It is one of those rara albums that most people – even those who profess not to like jazz – seem to be able to enjoy once they give it a listen. It has a gently swinging quality to it that soon will have you bobbing your head or tapping your tors. In fact, chances are good that you have heard some of this music before – So What and All Blues are floating out there in various arrangements all over the place. Like a great recording of a great symphony, Kind of Blue is an album that can be enjoyed over and over again – it always proves to be just as satisfying a musical an emotional experience each time. It truly is a landmark recording well worth seeking out.

Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing for the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Karl Nehring, Editor and Contributor

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to both its equipment and recordings review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me — point out recordings that they think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises Marantz CD 6007 and Onkyo CD 7030 CD players, NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I occasionally do some listening through pair of Sennheiser 560S headphones. I miss the excellent ELS Studio sound system in our 2016 Acura RDX (now my wife's daily driver) on which I had ripped more than a hundred favorite CDs to the hard drive, so now when driving my 2022 Accord EX-L Hybrid I stream music from my phone through its adequate but not outstanding factory system. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has tolerably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom II Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can’t imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Most recently I’ve moved to my “ultimate system” consisting of a BlueSound Node streamer, an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a CD transport, Legacy Wavelet II DAC/preamp/crossover, dual Legacy PowerBloc2 amps, and Legacy Signature SE speakers (biamped), all connected with decently made, no-frills cables. With the arrival of CD and higher resolution streaming, that is now the source for most of my listening.

Ryan Ross, Contributor

I started listening to and studying classical music in earnest nearly three decades ago. This interest grew naturally out of my training as a pianist. I am now a musicologist by profession, specializing in British and other symphonic music of the 19th and 20th centuries. My scholarly work has been published in major music journals, as well as in other outlets. Current research focuses include twentieth-century symphonic historiography, and the music of Jean Sibelius, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Malcolm Arnold.

I am honored to contribute writings to Classical Candor. In an age where the classical recording industry is being subjected to such profound pressures and changes, it is more important than ever for those of us steeped in this cultural tradition to continue to foster its love and exposure. I hope that my readers can find value, no matter how modest, in what I offer here.

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to classicalcandor@gmail.com

Readers with impolite, discourteous, bitchy, whining, complaining, nasty, mean-spirited, unhelpful letters may send them to classicalcandor@recycle.bin.

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa