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Masterful Handling

Volume 3 of
James Brawn's Beethoven -
praised by

'... his interpretive choices are exquisite.'

James Brawn - A Beethoven Odyssey Volume 3. © 2014 MSR Classics

Pianist James Brawn has already proved himself to the world as a first-rate interpreter and technician. The first two installments of his Beethoven Odyssey are crisp, articulate, and full of invention. But Brawn's real journey begins with this disc, for in it, he enters a realm quite apart from that of his first essays. In the liner notes that accompany Volume 3, we read that 'each note and phrase in every movement must feel and sound just right to [Brawn]'. Granted, this reads like a cliché — a stock phrase to be found in the booklet of almost any CD — but it is anything but. One can literally hear the workings of Brawn's artistic mind at every moment. His attention to detail is exceptional, and his interpretive choices are exquisite.

Brawn begins by completing his take on Beethoven's set of Op 2 sonatas (the other two appear in Volume 1). In keeping with his general approach, Brawn takes all of the Op 2, No 2 repeats. Unlike many pianists who do the same, however, he does not give us the same music twice. The repeat of the first movement's exposition, for instance, acts as a response to its initial presentation. This is perhaps most noticeable in the subordinate theme, which reaches a more intense climax the second time around. The added insistence is subtle, but it is just enough to portray the passage in a different light.

Similar instances of contextual shading pervade Brawn's playing. The third iteration of the opening theme (at the onset of the recapitulation), for example, demonstrates his tremendous sensitivity to slight alterations in the form. Unlike in the exposition, the main theme does not lead immediately to a cadence, but rather repeats the original closing lick over different harmonies before moving on. Brawn anticipates this deviation by maintaining a louder dynamic into the would-be cadence, so as to allow room for an ever-so-slight echo effect, which trumps our expectation for closure.

Listen -- Beethoven: Allegro Vivace (Piano Sonata Op 2 No 2)
(track 1, 5:30-6:19) © 2014 James Brawn:

In addition to his fine control over volume, Brawn displays a masterful handling of articulation. The degree to which he separates the right-hand and left-hand 'characters' of the second movement is exemplary. Only a handful of recordings express the main theme's basic idea of two distinct gestures gradually merging into one. This is one of them.

Listen -- Beethoven: Largo appassionato (Piano Sonata Op 2 No 2)
(track 2, 0:00-0:39) © 2014 James Brawn:

Brawn's showcase of brilliant second-movement textures is followed by one of the recording's few shortcomings. Much of the scherzo's sprightly feel comes from Beethoven's witty positioning of rests, which never occur in both hands at the same time. Brawn, however, undermines this humorous exchange between parts by extending crotchets (quarter notes) to minims (half notes). This smoothing out of the surface also diminishes the contrasting quality of the sustained middle section in G-sharp minor. But as a whole, the movement still brims with life.

Listen -- Beethoven: Scherzo (Piano Sonata Op 2 No 2)
(track 3, 2:36-3:31) © 2014 James Brawn:

That one must dig so deeply for faults in Brawn's playing testifies to its quality. In fact, aside from a few moments in the A-major sonata, one is hard pressed to find any problems at all. And once the first few notes of Beethoven's 'Tempest' sonata ring out, it is clear that any problem-finding excursions are bound to be in vain.

Brawn's playing is spellbinding from the first note to the last. His ear for resonance in the expressive opening chords is astounding, as is his sense of large-scale dynamic arcs. The main theme is perfectly sculpted from two different stones, such that we feel the conflict — the desperate pleas — at the work's very heart. Few recordings to date match Brawn's delivery of the work's emotional content. And none match his profound grasp of the famous con espressione e semplice passage, which is crowned by one of the most expressive uses of the sostenuto pedal on record.

Listen -- Beethoven: Largo — Allegro (Piano Sonata Op 31 No 2)
(track 5, 0:00-0:54) © 2014 James Brawn:

Listen -- Beethoven: Largo — Allegro (Piano Sonata Op 31 No 2)
(track 5, 5:50-7:24) © 2014 James Brawn:

The remainder of the work exhibits Brawn's capacity for crafting convincing formal trajectories. (The Allegretto's main theme is a case in point.) But even more impressive is his remarkable sense of timing, which comes to the fore in the opening movement of 'Les Adieux'. With its opening horn call, the movement conveys a firm E-flat major. When C enters in the bass, however, this typically light hunting topic takes on a grave air. One wrong step on the performer's part, and the effect is lost. Not so with Brawn. The C-octave is perfectly placed, resonating long after the upper voice dies out, and sets an appropriately sombre tone for the remainder of the phrase.

Beethoven uses this same trick several measures later to nudge the music unexpectedly into C-flat major. Much like the composer himself, Brawn has an immense talent for modulating between drastically different characters from one measure to the next. With a beautifully voiced C-flat major chord, he turns a painful farewell into a tender one, redirecting our attention to the happier future that lies ahead.

Listen -- Beethoven: Adagio — Allegro (Piano Sonata Op 81a)
(track 8, 0:00-1:12) © 2014 James Brawn:

And so Brawn's third of nine recordings ends on a very different note than that with which it began. As the final chord dies away, the listener is left to contemplate their profound journey — one that bore witness not only to the evolution of Beethoven's compositional style, but also to the spiritual transformation of an exceptional pianist.

Great artists attract the most scrupulous of critiques, only because their playing warrants an attentive ear at each and every turn, no matter how small. Brawn's work is now at that stage. 'Each note and phrase in every movement' will be pored over by attentive ears, and as the critics nitpick over the minute details of fleeting moments, we will nod our heads, not necessarily in agreement, but in affirmation of a single, unassailable fact: James Brawn has made it. Remember that name.

Copyright © 26 May 2014 Andrew Schartmann,
Connecticut USA









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