A Beethoven Odyssey, Volume 5 (CD review)

Piano Sonatas Nos. 5, 6, 7 and 10. James Brawn, piano. MSR Classics MS 1469.

You know how when you've got a favorite actor or actress in a part, and you can't imagine anyone else doing it better: Like Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind, Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl, Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect, John Thaw in Inspector Morse, or more recently Sam Elliot in The Hero? You know that other people could have done justice to the roles, but you doubt that anyone else could have improved upon them. That's the way I feel about English-born pianist James Brawn and his performances in the Beethoven piano sonatas.

Which is to take nothing away from any of the fine sets of sonatas we've gotten over the years from such distinguished artists as Alfred Brendel, Daniel Barenboim, Stephen Kovacevich, Claudio Arrau, Wilhelm Kempff, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Maurizio Pollini, Artur Schnabel, and others. And I can't claim that Brawn does anything any better than these other pianists. It's just that Brawn's work always feels consistently "right"; it's never flashy or eccentric, extroverted, idiosyncratic, or dull. With Brawn you just can't seem to think of the music played any other way.

Anyhow, with Volume 5 of his "Beethoven Odyssey," Brawn has now recorded twenty of Beethoven's thirty-two piano sonatas, and he shows no signs of slowing down any time soon. Fortunately for us.

The four sonatas Brawn performs on the current program (Nos. 5, 6, 7 and 10) date from 1798 and 1799. As Beethoven did with the others in the cycle, he intended these sonatas for performance in the home for family and friends, in a chamber setting for small gatherings, or on the concert stage for large audiences. They were kind of all-purpose musical pieces, and, of course, the composer never meant them to be played all at once (although some pianists have performed them over a series of evenings). Well, some of Beethoven's concerts were, indeed, all-night affairs, but even for him thirty-two works would be a stretch. Whatever, the sonatas are probably the most well known and maybe the best such works ever written, and Brawn gives them a good workout.

James Brawn
So, what does Brawn do with these early sonatas? It's probably easier, as I suggested above, to say what he doesn't do with them. He isn't as gentle as Kempff; he isn't as dynamic as Pollini; he isn't as poetic as Arrau; he isn't as deliberate as Brendel; he isn't as zestful as Barenboim; and so on. In fact, it's hard to characterize Brawn's playing with simple adjectives. He just molds each phrase as skillfully as possible, the fast movements sounding every bit as vital and vigorous as any you've heard; and the slow movements as lyrical, as serene, as thoughtful as any around.

Brawn takes Sonata No. 5 at a good, heady pace, yet he never oversteps the bounds of propriety, making it sound lively and tranquil by turns. The first movement, especially, appears full of contrasts--dynamic and emotional--and with Brawn in full control, it is a fine introduction to the rest of the pieces. The second, slow movement seems to foreshadow Chopin and conveys a deep feeling of sorrow. Then, the Finale does a complete U-turn, being very quick (prestissimo) and upbeat. Brawn has a good deal of fun with it.

Sonata No. 6 was apparently one of Beethoven's favorites, which may have proved what a good pianist he was. I say this because of the four sonatas on this program, No. 6 is probably the most virtuosic. Brawn's flying fingers were never in more evidence, and he gives it a good workout. The Presto finale is particularly demanding, but Brawn has no difficulty with it, and the result is most entertaining.

Sonata No. 7 is unusual in that it has four movements rather than the traditional three. The work alternates between brightness and gloom, but, fear not, it ends on a smiling note. Again, the score illustrates how nimble Mr. Brawn is on the keyboard, and while I can't claim I've ever liked the piece too well, Brawn does as much as possible to make it enjoyable.

The disc ends with Sonata No. 10, a more elegant and lyrical work than the preceding ones, perhaps an indication of Beethoven's growing maturity; he may have felt he no longer needed to prove his worth through flamboyant showmanship alone. Whatever the case, under Brawn's thoughtful guidance, the sonata sounds flowing, graceful, playful, lilting, dramatic, and exciting. It ends the program in bravura fashion and reinforces my opinion that when Brawn finishes the complete sonatas, the set will rival the very best available. So far, there are simply none better.

Producer Jeremy Hayes and engineer Ben Connellan recorded the music at Potton Hall, Suffolk, United Kingdom in April 2017. The piano sounds about as good as it could sound, namely, like a real piano. The sonics are clear and clean, the hall resonance is nigh-well perfect, and the miking distance provides a realistic seating position on the part of the listener.

JJP

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


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical 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 I 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 an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. 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 remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom 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.
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.

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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa