Every time I listen to a new album by British pianist James Brawn (James Brawn in Recital, A 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.
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: