Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) A Beethoven Odyssey:
The Piano Sonatas - Volumes I-IV
rec. 2012-14, Potton Hall, Suffolk, UK MSR CLASSICS MS1465-68 [72:32 & 76:36 & 70:49 & 72:25]
James Brawn’s Beethoven sonata series may be the most exciting cycle currently being recorded. A pianist in his mid-forties, Brawn had, until this series began, been primarily known as a teacher in Australia and a mainstay of the recital circuit in the UK and Commonwealth. As it turns out, he is also a supremely intelligent Beethoven performer.
When you listen for a first or second time to these recordings, what sticks out, above all, is that Brawn never makes a significant mistake. Though his performances are never “safe” in the derogatory sense of “boring”, they are safe in the sense that you can feel secure he will do a fine job. As David R Dunsmore wrote here in his review of Volume 2, “Clear, thoughtful playing throughout and avoiding sentimentality”.
Thoughtful also applies to Brawn’s booklet notes. In the first volume, he writes an essay; in later volumes, Linda Marianello interviews him. Unlike the essays written by many performers, these notes offer genuine insight into how Brawn interprets the music. Of Sonata No. 1, first movement: “there is little room for flight of fancy”. Of the sonata’s finale: “The development section in A-flat major may lull pianists and listeners into a false sense of calm.” Brawn compares the slow movement of No. 25 (Op. 79) to a “Venetian gondola song” and plays it accordingly.
In the very early sonatas, Brawn favours using the full dynamic range and expressive capabilities of the modern Steinway, which is something I’m happy with, as these are usually not my favourite sonatas. In Brawn’s hands, they sound like very grown-up Beethoven, and he takes care to play up the music’s muscular strength and eccentricity. That’s not to say he is insensitive; the second sonata’s scherzo, for example, shows great elegance.
This also creates a remarkable consistency with some of the later sonatas, like No. 24 (Op. 78), which receives an extremely fine reading. In the famous Pathétique and Moonlight, I agree with David Dunsmore that James Brawn does a good job avoiding the temptation to get sappy. His Pathétique is an admirable achievement: clear, dignified, authoritative. He also plays the Moonlight sonata’s minuet like a true, graceful classical minuet.
I mentioned that on your first or second listen, you mostly notice that Brawn never makes a mistake. As you listen more and more, you start to discover ways in which he is distinctive and different. Take the Appassionata: Brawn treats the second note of the sonata like a grace note (acciaccatura) before the third, and he does so the first few times this musical idea appears. However, after three or four minutes, you notice his fidelity to this idea wavers, because when the rhythm reappears in the major-key second theme, it simply doesn’t make sense to continue cutting the second note short that way. Maybe the idea wasn’t a good one in the first place, then. The stately pace of the slow movement, and lack of hysteria in the finale, are explained by Brawn’s booklet comment about “tragic solemnity pervad[ing] each” movement. The important word is solemnity. If you listen to Fazil Say’s violent Appassionata, you won’t hear any solemnity at all.
An even happier example of Brawn’s eccentricity is Les Adieux, at 18 minutes the slowest performance in my collection - slower even than the hyper-romantic Emil Gilels on DG. You only really notice it in the beautifully drawn-out introduction. After that, Brawn’s playing is robust and hearty, more “unhurried” than “slow”. It is a great performance.
There’s one more thing to report about Brawn’s personality, although I don’t necessarily endorse this opinion. I conducted a blind listening test on the Good Music Guide discussion forum, comprising about 10 minutes of the Waldstein Sonata, in which James Brawn was pitted against Jonathan Biss, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, Rudolf Serkin and Emil Gilels (see article). Three different judges compared Brawn to Glenn Gould. For example: “Original (but weird) articulation, pedal, phrasing ... Sounds like Gould, indeed.” One judge was so convinced that he immediately bought a box set of Glenn Gould’s Beethoven, and then made the belated discovery that Gould never did record the Waldstein Sonata.
Two other judges, by the way, suggested that James Brawn and Rudolf Serkin were the same pianist, recorded on two different occasions. While they were technically wrong, they may perhaps be correct in spirit.
High praise, I know. But when you live with Brawn’s Beethoven for a month or two, as I have in preparing this review, you only grow more impressed. On first encounter, he sounds consistent and competent, but maybe not great. Then I start to appreciate his flexibility, his adaptability to each sonata’s feel, and the intelligence which keeps him from making dubious interpretive decisions. Maybe there is something to the Serkin comparison, or even Wilhelm Kempff. Without being overtly flashy or having a “big personality”, they still put together consistently satisfying results. With 16 sonatas recorded and 16 to go, James Brawn’s Beethoven sonata cycle has a chance to be one of the best of its decade.