A Beethoven Odyssey, Volume 2 (CD review)

Piano Sonatas Nos. 8, 14, 19, 20, and 21. James Brawn, piano. MSR Classics MS 1466.

British pianist James Brawn (b. 1971) has only recently begun a recording career with MSR Classics, and at the time I reviewed his album James Brawn in Recital a month or so before coming to this one, I'm afraid I did not recognize his name. However, judging by the critical praise he received for his prior albums and my reaction to his recital album, he appears to be off to an auspicious start. He's been winning awards since he was a child, teaching, and performing (mainly in New Zealand, Australia, and England) to great acclaim, and this second of his Beethoven recordings makes one understand his appeal. As I said of him after hearing the recital disc, he is a consummate artist.

Mr. Brawn made the album reviewed here, A Beethoven Odyssey, Volume 2, in 2012 as a part of a series of Beethoven sonata discs I hope he will continue recording. The reviewed album contains three of Beethoven's most-popular sonatas, including three of the popular named pieces: the "Pathetique," the "Moonlight," and the "Waldstein," along with two shorter sonatas, Nos. 19 and 20. It makes a good introduction to Brawn's nuanced style of playing, and it should entertain anyone interested in Beethoven, no matter how many other recordings of these well-worn classics one already has.

The program begins with the Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13 "Pathetique," written in 1798, a relatively early work composed when Beethoven was only twenty-seven. The composer's publisher actually nicknamed the sonata "Grande sonate pathétique" (an appellation that apparently Beethoven liked) because the sonata impressed the publisher with its mellow, tragic qualities.

Brawn opens the sonata as Beethoven directs, gravely, but with a sweet, nuanced care. He then moves into the Allegro section with all the "brio" or vivacity required, so he's got both the lyrical and bravura qualities down pat. His intensity is evident in every note, taking care to modulate his tone as the score demands. Still, Brawn is doing more than just following the notes and score here; he is imposing a personality on the music. He is creating, in fact, an interpretation, one that in this case he has carefully planned around the composer's wishes, so while it is clearly Brawn's reading, it remains Beethoven's music. The second-movement Andante cantabile contains the sonata's most-famous melody, and again Brawn nails it perfectly, combining nobility, melancholy, longing, passion, and drama in balanced order. Then Brawn closes the piece with a playful Rondo, in which he matches the intensity of the opening movement with a demonstration of pianistic virtuosity that is quite dazzling. The result is a brilliant rendering of an old warhorse.

Next up Mr. Brawn gives us what is probably Beethoven's most-famous and best-loved sonata, No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 27, No. 2 "Moonlight," completed in 1801. The first edition of the score bears the heading "Sonata quasi una fantasia," or "sonata almost in the manner of a fantasy." The "Moonlight" business derives from the comments of a critic of the day who compared the mood of the first movement to that of "moonlight shining upon Lake Lucerne." The name stuck.

The "Moonlight" begins with that lovely tune we all know so well, and Brawn's handling of it is magical. It's just as dreamy as anyone's, without resorting to an ultraslow, sentimental pace. It simply paints the picture Beethoven seems to have had in mind: a kind of mysterious, desolate loneliness, tinged with a faint silvery glow. Beautiful, done with genuine feeling for the mood and the music. The Allegretto & Trio momentarily lightens things up before the distress of the final movement. Brawn's subtle and effective transitions take us from one emotion to the next with a seamless, effortless polish, all the while maintaining the urgency and poignancy of the music.

The third and fourth sonatas on the program are Nos. 19 in G minor, Op. 40, No. 1 and No. 20 in G Major, Op. 49, No. 2 "Leichte" ("Light"), brief, two-movement pieces. Although published in 1805, Beethoven probably wrote them a decade earlier. In any case, they are understandably simpler than the other sonatas, and in the few instances I've heard them performed before, the pianist always seemed to take them rather superficially. But not Brawn, who makes each item a fascinating little listening experience.

The final work on the program is the Piano Sonata No. 21 in C Major, Op. 53 "Waldstein," from 1804. It got its name because Beethoven dedicated it to a close friend and patron, Count Ferdinand Ernst Gabriel von Waldstein. Or you can call it "L'Aurora" (It., "The Dawn") for the tone of the third movement, which brings to mind the image of daybreak. It is a big, grand sonata that takes the album to a big, grand conclusion.

Brawn tells us in a booklet note that he sees the "Waldstein" as "a kind of rebirth" for the performer and the listener, a work "filled with physical energy and love of life." Certainly, the pianist puts this philosophy to the test from the very outset of the work as he offers a successive outpouring of notes that transform in purpose from nervous agitation to sheer pleasure. Then, in the central Introduction and concluding Rondo Brawn further impresses us with his complete command of tonal changes, flexible tempos, shifts of contrast, shadings of expression, and, of course, sheer virtuosity.

I have no idea if Mr. Brawn intends to continue his "Beethoven Odyssey" through the composer's complete thirty-odd piano sonatas or wrap it up with his first three such albums. Still, I'm sure anyone who has heard his creative, highly personal, yet truthful Beethoven realizations so far can only hope for more.

Mr. Brawn recorded the sonatas in April and December of 2012 at Potton Hall, Suffolk, United Kingdom. Producer Jeremy Hayes, engineer Ben Connellan, piano technician Ulrich Gerhartz, and tuner Graham Cooke attended to the details. The technicians miked the piano at a moderately close distance, all the better to pick up the instrument's detail, definition, and dynamics. Yet the acoustic environment allows enough warm, ambient bloom for the piano to sound natural and realistic. It's quite ideal, actually.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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 John 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 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.

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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa