A Beethoven Odyssey, Volume 6 (CD review)

Piano Sonatas Nos. 4, 11, and 12. James Brawn, piano. MSR Classics MS 1470.

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.

James Brawn
I've mentioned this before, but bear with me. There's a difference between merely playing notes of music and interpreting them. Moreover, there's a difference between interpreting those notes with sensitivity and faithfulness and interpreting them so idiosyncratically they no longer sound like they belong to the composer. Mr. Brawn, I'm pleased to say, falls into the sensitive yet faithful category. He doesn't simply play the music but interprets it sensibly. One can hear this in almost every note he plays. One can hear it in the very tone of his piano; in the subtleties of his tempos and rubato; in the shadings of his dynamic contrasts. Yes, he is a virtuosic pianist, and his fingers can fly with the best of them, but he is not one to be content with showmanship alone. His is playing of refinement, of art.

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.

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 Jon 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 of The $ensible Sound magazine 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 simpleminded, 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 Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. 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 cell phone. 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.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa