James Brawn in Recital, Volume 2 (CD review)

"The Time Traveller and His Muse." James Brawn, piano. MSR Classics MS 1502 (2-disc set).

This is by my count British concert pianist James Brawn's sixth album for MSR Classics, and in that time he has become one of my favorite classical performers. His work never fails to impress and delight me, the present collection no exception.

As I said about Mr. Brawn the first time I heard him, "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 new recording makes one understand his appeal. He is a consummate artist."

Mr. Brawn has subtitled the album "The Time Traveller and His Muse," which is also the title of many of his concert recitals. Certainly, with this collection he is a time traveller, indeed, as the selections on the program span some four centuries, from Domenico Scarlatti to George Gershwin. Brawn has arranged the tracks chronologically as follows.

Disc One:
  1. Domenico Scarlatti: Sonata in E major, K.380
  2. Domenico Scarlatti: Sonata in C major, K.159 La Caccia
  3. Johann Sebastian Bach: Well-Tempered Clavier, Bk I - Prelude in C major, BWV 846
  4. Johann Sebastian Bach: Well-Tempered Clavier, Bk I - Prelude in C minor, BWV 847
  5. Johann Sebastian Bach: Well-Tempered Clavier, Bk I - Prelude in D major, BWV 850
  6. Johann Sebastian Bach: Well-Tempered Clavier, Bk I - Prelude in E-flat minor, BWV 853
  7. Johann Sebastian Bach: Well-Tempered Clavier, Bk I - Prelude in E major, BWV 854
  8. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Sonata No.11 in A major, K.331 Rondo alla Turca
  9. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Fantasia in D minor, K.397
10. Ludwig van Beethoven: Für Elise (Bagatelle in A minor)
11. Franz Schubert: Moment Musicale No. 3 in F minor, D.780
12. Franz Schubert: Impromptu No. 3 in G-flat major, D.899
13. Frederic Chopin: Prelude No. 4 in E minor, Op. 28
14. Frederic Chopin: Étude No. 12 in C minor, Op. 25 Ocean
15. Frederic Chopin: Étude No. 3 in E major, Op. 10 La Tristesse
16. Frederic Chopin: Étude No. 1 in A-flat major, Op. 25 Aeolian Harp
17. Frederic Chopin: Étude No. 5 in G-flat major, Op. 10 Black Key

Disc Two:
  1. Frederic Chopin: Prelude No. 15 in D-flat major, Op. 28 Raindrop
  2. Frederic Chopin: Prelude in C-sharp minor, Op. 45
  3. Franz Liszt: Consolation No. 3 in D-flat major, S.172
  4. Johannes Brahms: Waltz in A-flat major, Op. 39, No. 15
  5. Johannes Brahms: Intermezzo in A major, Op. 118, No. 2
  6. Edvard Grieg: Arietta in E-flat major, Op. 12, No. 1
  7. Alexander Scriabin: Étude in C-sharp minor, Op. 2, No. 1
  8. Sergei Rachmaninoff: Prelude in C-sharp minor, Op. 3, No. 2
  9. Sergei Rachmaninoff: Prelude in G-sharp minor, Op. 32, No. 12
10. Sergei Rachmaninoff: Prelude in B minor, Op. 32, No. 10
11. Sergei Rachmaninoff: Prelude in D major, Op. 23, No. 4
12. Sergei Rachmaninoff: Prelude in G major, Op. 32, No. 5
13. Sergei Prokofiev: Toccata in D minor, Op. 11
14. George Gershwin: I Got Rhythm

I continue to marvel that everything Brawn touches turns to magic. I have yet to hear him play anything I didn't like, that didn't sound just the way I imagine the composer intended yet with the added merit of Brawn's personal touch. Brawn never distorts the music and never uses it to call attention to himself and his virtuosic skills, yet he is also able to make all of it his own, reveling in every nuance of phrasing, contrast, tempo, and dynamics.

Of course, that doesn't mean listeners won't have their favorites among the selections. Mine are probably just favorite pieces of music that I took pleasure in hearing anew and so well played. For instance, while I am not the biggest fan of the Scarlattis, the father Allessandro or the son Domenico recorded here, I have to admit the two pieces he plays make a good, dashing opening for the album, with Brawn providing a healthy splash of élan.

James Brawn
Then we get five of Bach preludes, which Brawn calls "the Old Testament of keyboard repertoire." Never mind that Bach wrote them for harpsichord or clavichord because under Brawn's ever-watchful control they make beautiful pieces for the piano. The ones Brawn has chosen to play alternate between fast and slow, the juxtaposition quite flattering.

Of course, it's always fun to hear Mozart's "Rondo alla Turca," yet Brawn doesn't overplay it to show off his skills. It's just as exciting played with care for the music rather than care for the thrills alone. Brawn's sensitive handling of the Fantasia that follows is exquisite in its subtle detail.

The only piece we get from Beethoven is the little bagatelle "Fur Elise." Along with the opening movement of the "Moonlight Sonata" it may be the composer's most familiar piece of solo piano music. I doubt that anyone hasn't heard it and wouldn't recognize it, so it isn't easy to bring anything to it that pianists before Brawn haven't already done. Nevertheless, it comes off as perfectly as one could imagine, filled with nostalgic remembrances and an ever-sweet charm.

And speaking of charm, whose music was ever more charming than Schubert's? Brawn approaches it with refinement, wit, and grace.

Then disc one ends (and disc two begins) with what I found the highlights of the album: the music of Chopin: preludes and études. Brawn seems to have a natural affinity for Chopin, and the snippets he provides only whetted my appetite for more of the same. If you find the playing of Rubinstein a tad too cold or distant or Pollini a bit too quick or calculated and other noted pianists a touch too sentimental or matter-of-fact or romanticized or whatever, you might find Brawn exactly what you want. His Chopin is big when it needs to be big, extrovert when necessary, gentle, passionate, delicate, brilliant, you name it as the occasion requires. One listen to the Etude No. 3, Op. 10 or the Prelude No. 15, Op. 28, and you may find them as meltingly beautiful and as perfectly executed as I did.

And so it goes. The Liszt is heavenly; the Brahms has a genuine lilt and lyricism without appearing excessively sad or melancholy for its own sake; the Grieg and Scriabin are flowing and melodic.

Which brings us to Rachmaninoff, the great twentieth-century pianist-composer who never quite left the nineteenth century behind. Brawn shows us that despite Rachmaninoff's reputation, he incorporated any number of modern elements in his style, particularly in the five preludes presented here. In fact, they never sound overtly "Romantic," except, perhaps, in their sometimes melodramatic underpinnings. In any case, Brawn pulls them off as well as anybody, with little or no exaggeration.

The program ends with Prokofiev and Gershwin, both of them providing the kind of zingers the album needs to close strong. The Gershwin, incidentally, Brawn plays in a transcription he first heard played by Jon Kimura Parker, another of my favorite pianists.

Now, Mr. Brawn: How about an entire album of Chopin? The nocturnes would be wonderful.

Producer Jeremy Hayes and engineer Ben Connellan recorded Mr. Brawn at Potton Hall, Suffolk, United Kingdom in August and November 2014. The piano sound, as before, is clean, clear, rich, and resonant. The venue provides just enough ambient bloom to make the instrument come alive and appear lifelike. The natural warmth provides a realistic-sounding response, as though the listener were actually in the room with the piano, albeit at a moderate distance. Transient response, dynamics, and frequency balance are exemplary as well, nothing too hard, too soft, too bright, or too edgy. In other words, excellent sound.


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.

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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