A Beethoven Odyssey, Volume 4 (CD review)

Piano Sonatas Nos. 9, 15, 24, 25, and 27. James Brawn, piano. MSR Classics MS 1468. 

Every time I listen to a new album by British pianist James Brawn (James Brawn in RecitalA Beethoven Odyssey, Volume 2), I remember again why I so look forward to his releases. He is one of the preeminent pianists of our day and, certainly, one of the handful of relatively young pianists destined for greatness. On this latest disc, A Beethoven Odyssey Volume 4, Brawn continues his cycle of Beethoven's piano sonatas. If, and I assume when, he finishes his survey of all the sonatas, he will have no doubt completed one of the finest sets of Beethoven sonata recordings in the catalogue.

The thing about Brawn that makes his playing stand out is that it's big and full without being big and flashy. That is, while Brawn is as virtuosic as any pianist you'll hear, his virtuosity always serves the music. Like others in his company, he can appear to have ten fingers on each hand, yet he never uses his dexterity to draw attention to himself. His performances are always more subtle and nuanced than that, which probably means he will have more trouble becoming the superstar some record companies encourage. Instead, he reminds me more of a Brendel or Kovacevich in that his playing is thoughtful and purposeful as well as thoroughly entertaining.

Brawn chose five of Beethoven's piano sonatas for this current program, sonatas that he says are "lyrical and life affirming," exhibiting Beethoven's "lighter, more positive nature." As you probably know, Ludwig Beethoven ((1770-1827) wrote thirty-two piano sonatas between the years 1795 and 1822, which means he was writing these pieces throughout most of his adult musical career. Brawn has selected five of these sonatas spanning most of those years, from 1798-1814. Thus, on the present album Brawn's own Beethoven odyssey covers much of Beethoven's own adventurous, musical journey.

First up on the agenda is the Piano Sonata No. 9 in E major, a youthful work that Brawn describes as being in "the spirited key of E." Beethoven would later rearrange it for his String Quartet in F major. Beethoven intentionally left out a conventional slow movement to ensure the piece would maintain its upbeat quality, and Brawn's approach from the outset is lively and sparkling. In fact, the performance is a total delight.

Next, we hear the Piano Sonata No. 15 in D major, nicknamed by Beethoven's publisher the "Pastorale." Surely, one can sense the composer's connection with nature throughout the piece. Here, Beethoven was back to a traditional four-movement setting. Brawn does a terrific job emphasizing the tensions between softer and louder segments, between slower and faster passages whilst never exaggerating the contrasts to the point of drawing our attention wholly to them. His playing seems all of one accord, flowing naturally and seamlessly from note to note, from section to section. In other words, with Brawn every work is an organic whole, not an assembly of random ideas meant to impress the listener in spurts.

James Brawn
After that is the Piano Sonata No. 24 in f-sharp major. Its uplifting moods stand, says Brawn, in sharp contrast to the tragic "Appassionata," written a few years earlier. As Beethoven dedicated No. 24 to his friend and patron Countess Thérèse von Brunsvik, one can understand the nickname "A Thérèse." Of all the sonatas on the program, "A Thérèse" is probably the most gentle and expressive, at least in its first movement. Consequently, Brawn accords it a full measure of sweetness and sensitivity, yet with no hint of sentimentality; and, indeed, he affords the closing Allegro vivace an appropriately energetic reading.

Then, we find the Piano Sonata No. 25 in G major, written in the same year as No. 24. In this sonata Brawn gets to show off a bit, the opening movement requiring an extremely quick and nimble bit of finger work. Nevertheless, there is never any hint that Brawn is actually showing off, and he doesn't so much amaze the listener with his agility as he does amaze one at how musical the piece sounds. With Brawn, it's always about the music, not himself. And there's always that gorgeous Andante to consider, again beautifully played.

Brawn concludes the program with the Piano Sonata No. 27 in E minor from 1814. Musical scholars generally view No. 27 as the transitional work from Beethoven's middle to late piano sonatas, the "Late" sonatas being his final five, Nos. 28-31. Anyway, this last work on the card is clearly more mature than the preceding pieces, seemingly more complex yet equally direct. So is Mr. Brawn's piano playing. He communicates with feeling, with a yearning of the heart and mind. One senses the performer's commitment in every tone, every pitch, every pause, every phrase. Above all, then, Brawn is a communicator, a consummate artist.

Producer Jeremy Hayes and engineer Ben Connellan recorded the sonatas in July 2013, August 2014, and November 2014 at Potton Hall, Suffolk, United Kingdom. The sound matches Mr. Brawn's style in that it's big and warm without being big and flashy. It sounds like a live piano (it's a Steinway grand) played a few yards away from the listener. The room provides a mild and flattering ambient bloom that further enhances the lifelike illusion. Although the piano does not stretch across from one speaker to the other, it is reasonably and realistically close, enough so to remind one of an actual piano in the room with you.


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