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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
A Beethoven Odyssey – Volume 6
Piano Sonata No. 4 in E-flat, Op. 7 (1796-97) [28:35]
Piano Sonata No. 12 in A-flat, Op. 26 (1800-01) [18:51]
Piano Sonata No. 11 in B-flat, Op. 22 (1799-1800) [26:17]
James Brawn (Piano)
rec. 2018, Potton Hall, Suffolk, UK
MSR CLASSICS MS1470 [73:43]

The first thing some critics ask when a new cycle of Beethoven's piano sonatas or symphonies is presented is, “Do we need yet another set of this well-traversed music?”. My answer is, “Yes, if the performances are good and have a measure of individuality.” Pianist James Brawn, born in England, raised in New Zealand and Australia, and later resident in China and the USA, is truly a cosmopolitan musician, but more importantly, an insightful and talented one. Here in Volume 6 of his cycle of Beethoven sonatas he once again impresses, both with his considerable keyboard skills and his way of finding pathways to Beethoven that sound fresh and imaginative. I covered the previous five discs for another Classical publication, finding each issue of great merit. Though he has drawn significant attention from this series, I believe he is still somewhat overlooked.

If there is one outstanding aspect about Brawn's interpretive acumen that I have noticed previously, it is his nearly unerring sense to capture the essence of the varied and often shifting moods in Beethoven's sonatas. For example, the anxious jocularity and mischievous character of the E-flat major's opening movement is deftly brought off here with well-judged tempos, subtly applied rubato, and a wide range of dynamics. Notice how he can suddenly or gradually move with multiple gradations of sound from a muscular tone to a softer one, or vice versa. He is never harsh or jarring or over demure, and never predictable. Yet, neither is he wayward or extreme in his unearthing of fresh interpretive approaches. The solemnity of the second movement has rarely come across with such elegance in its atmospheric tonal richness and well-shaped pacing. In some performances the ensuing panel may well strike certain listeners as just a pleasant diversion in its outer sections, but not here: Brawn's subtle use of rubato and dynamics is very imaginative, milking the music for more expressive depth than one usually hears. He effectively captures the stormy character of the trio about as well as anyone. The finale is actually similar in character to the Scherzo, with rather good-natured music bracketing the darker, more intense middle section. Again, Brawn delivers the goods, with well-judged tempos and subtle phrasing in all other respects.

The A-flat Twelfth Sonata follows and Brawn plays the opening theme-and-variations movement with a keen sense for its shifting moods, applying all the necessary color to bring it off effectively. He gives the theme a feeling of repose and dignity, convincingly enacting its stately and subdued character. The first variation has the necessary combination of playfulness and drive, while the next one is somber and dark, but Brawn wisely adopts a fairly lively pace here, avoiding the tendency of some pianists to overdo the music's seriousness. Brawn gives the chipper variation that follows a slightly disruptive character with very subtle accenting. The final two variations are given a nice lyrical flow here to crown this brilliant account of the opening movement.

I also found his performance of the brief Scherzo totally convincing, as well as the ensuing Funeral March, wherein Brawn once again adopts a tempo somewhat on the lively side for both the march music and grim middle section. Yet, he doesn't short-change the sense of tragedy—indeed, he enhances it with his more penetrating and intense account. The Rondo finale brims with life and color throughout its three-minute length, making you wish the music would go on.

To me, the B-flat Eleventh is one of Beethoven's finest and most inventive early sonatas, brimming with ideas, especially in the first movement. Brawn doesn't miss a thing here, bringing to life the rich and varied themes or motifs, fully capturing the soul of each. The development section is also well played, with tension and conflict emerging at its heart. The reprise follows in convincing style. The subdued character of the Adagio is lovely, Brawn's pedaling and legato touch seemingly a perfect fit for his warm take on this music. The Minuet that follows has the appropriate gracefulness here—and maybe just a dash of humor too—and in the middle section Brawn effectively brings off the tempestuous character of the music. The Rondo finale has a lyrical, songful demeanor much of the time, but can also turn stormy. Brawn finds a warm expressive manner here, but never lets any mood swing or coarsening of the music slip away, in the end delivering a most charming and insightful account of this colorful movement. Beethoven thought highly of this sonata and it's easy to see why, especially in a performance this fine.

MSR provides Brawn with vivid, state-of-the-art sonics to match the fine sound of his Steinway piano. There is of course a plethora of competitive renditions of these sonatas: from cyclists we have Brendel (three), Barenboim (four!), and Schnabel (these three iconic artists appear on various labels). There are countless others too, including recent fine efforts by François-Frédéric Guy (Zig-Zag Territories) and Michael Korstick (Oehms). But I must stop here because it is virtually impossible to declare a winner from these mentioned above and the rest of the crowded field. I can only summarize by saying James Brawn is competitive with the best; furthermore, he typically etches out his own interpretive path to give the listener a fresh, often distinctive view of these sonatas.

Robert Cummings

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