The German composer and pianist Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1826) wrote 32 piano sonatas over a period of 27 years (1795-1822). English concert pianist James Brawn has so far recorded about 175 of them over a period of some 800 years. Or so it seems. Fortunately, they are among the best played and best recorded Beethoven piano sonatas you will find, so you will get no complaints from me.
This is Mr. Brawn's sixth volume of Beethoven piano sonatas, and at three to a disc, yes, it's going to take time to complete the job. He started the project in 2012, and when it's done, one hopes the buyer will be able to choose between separate sonatas on separate discs or together in a complete box set. We'll see. In the meantime, enjoy Nos. 4, 11, and 12.
In case you've forgotten, James Brawn was born in England in 1971, started piano lessons at the age of seven, won the first of many awards at the age of eight, made his debut with a Mozart concerto in Australia at the age of twelve, continued studying with important pianists, and subsequently played in recital and in concert all over the world. From his Web site: "In 2016, Brawn was appointed to the piano faculty of the FaceArt Institute of Music, Shanghai. His recent concerto performances include the Beethoven 1, 3, 4 and 5 with the English Symphony Orchestra, Surrey Mozart Players, Capriol Chamber and Stroud Symphony Orchestras. James Brawn is a Steinway Artist."
The program begins with Piano Sonata No. 4, which Beethoven composed between 1796-97. It's one of Beethoven's longest piano sonatas, and because it stands alone, not a part of any set, the composer called it the "Grand Sonata." Also, because it is among Beethoven's earliest piano sonatas, written when the composer was still in his twenties, it has a lighter, more youthful feeling than most of the later works. That's the way Brawn plays, with a lightness of touch and a youthful feeling of joy, turbulence, calm, grace, eloquence, restlessness, and resolution by turns.
Anyway, next is the Piano Sonata No. 12, composed by Beethoven between 1800-1801, about the time he finished his Symphony No. 1. Probably the most striking elements of this sonata are that the first movement is a relatively slow andante for variations, the movements do not follow the usual Sonata-Allegro format, and they're all in the key of A-flat. What's more, the third-movement funeral march was later played during the composer's own funeral. Brawn calls this sonata "beautiful," and that's the way he approaches it, with consummate brilliance yet great feeling. And, as always, his piano tone is rich, mellow, full, warm, and resonant as the occasion requires.
The disc ends with Piano Sonata No. 11, composed in 1800. Beethoven himself regarded No. 11 as the best of his early piano sonatas, and it has always remained popular with audiences. Maybe it's why Brawn chose to close the show with it. Listening to Brawn play it so effortlessly, one cannot imagine what sublime complexity there is in the piece. It was probably the culmination of Beethoven's creative genius at the time, and Brawn gives it its due, with playing of profound artistry, flexibility, sympathy, and awareness.
Producer Jeremy Hayes and Engineer Ben Connilian recorded the music at Potton Hall, Suffolk, United Kingdom in December 2018. As always, the piano sound is excellent. It is not quite so pinpoint sharp as most DG piano recordings, but it is more natural. The piano sounds the way a real piano would sound in a real room, with a rich, mildly resonant bloom. As I mentioned earlier, these piano sonatas from Mr. Brawn are not only among the best performances you'll find, they're among the best recorded.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: