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James Brawn in Recital - Volume 1
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)

Chaconne in D minor, arr. Ferruccio Busoni [15:40]
Prelude in C major from Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1 [1:58]
Franz LISZT (1811-1889)
Mephisto Waltz No 1 [11:49]
Consolation No 3 in D flat [5:24]
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Pictures at an Exhibition [34:58]
Sergei RACHMANINOFF (1873-1943)
Prelude in B minor, Op. 32 No. 10 [5:57]
James Brawn (piano)
rec. 6-8 August 2012, Potton Hall, Suffolk, UK
MSR CLASSICS MS 1501 [75:46]

James Brawn is becoming a major pianistic force but this album is a bit of a let-down. Following the excellent second volume of his Beethoven series, which I preferred to competing issues by Jonathan Biss and Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, he is undertaking a recital series of repertoire highlights by other composers. Don’t let the title mislead you: “In Recital” does not mean live; these are studio recordings.

They are highly polished ones. Especially good are the first two tracks, the Bach/Busoni Chaconne and Liszt’s famous Mephisto Waltz. Contrary to his name, Brawn is sensitive and subtle in the Bach/Busoni work, keeping his vision on the structure as a whole rather than momentary thrills. It’s a long performance, at over fifteen minutes, and several listeners with whom I shared it agreed on the word “austere”. Partly because of the dry, understated acoustic, Brawn’s strict adherence to the starting tempo contributes to a reading that brings strict Bach to the surface more than the romantic influence of Busoni. For the connoisseur, this kind of taut control can be thrilling.

The Mephisto Waltz comes across a more satisfying whole than usual. Too many pianists are good at chunks of the piece without being good at all of it. Cyprien Katsaris, on Warner Apex, runs out of steam near the end; William Kapell’s near-perfect account can’t always stick to its breakneck pace; and many of the faster interpretations acquire vulgar revelry at the expense of playing the right notes. Brawn is not exactly vulgar, but he’s not exactly classy either, a fine middle-ground in which the structure of the piece holds perfectly and the playing is exciting, if not quite as wild as it could be.

The Mussorgsky Pictures is the biggest piece and the weakest performance. Not that it’s bad; it certainly isn’t. It’s just more careful, studied, “proper,” where Brawn’s other performances — particularly in his Beethoven series — are stimulating and unique. He’s certainly much more inhibited than the classic Alfred Brendel account, which has that pianist at his most colourful. Brawn also disappoints with his choice of encore: the famous first prelude (no fugue) from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. I wonder if any little-known pieces are to be found in his repertoire?

This is still an important artist, and he is still a thoughtful, nuanced interpreter but I hope Volume II of the series features a more natural concert-hall acoustic and a few works that are off the beaten path.

Brian Reinhart

Masterwork Index: Pictures at an Exhibition