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A Beethoven Odyssey, Vol. 1 / James Brawn

Release Date: 06/11/2013 
Label:  Msr   Catalog #: 1465   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  James Brawn
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BEETHOVEN Piano Sonatas: No. 1 in f; No. 3 in C; No. 23 in f, “Appassionata” James Brawn (pn) MSR 1465 (72:34)

BEETHOVEN Piano Sonatas: No. 8 in c, “Pathétique”; No. 14 in c?, “Moonlight”; No. 19 in g; No. 20 in G; No. 21 in C, “Waldstein” Read more class="BULLET12"> • James Brawn (pn) MSR 1466 (76:35)

A high-school history teacher I once had kicked off the new semester’s class with one of the most cynical and depressing thoughts I’ve ever heard expressed to a classroom full of freshly scrubbed, eager young faces. The very first words out of his mouth were, “Well, here we go, down the same road yet again.” It was years before I understood that his jaded sigh of world-weary ennui was really a cry of desperation. He was lamenting the fact that as he grew older, his students remained perennially young, and the subject matter, being history, stayed the same. I admit to being similarly overcome by a feeling of Weltschmerz when I received these two companion discs for review. “Here we go, down the same road yet again,” I thought to myself, as another cycle of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, performed by a young, relatively unfamiliar artist, gets underway.

All of that, of course, was before I actually listened to these CDs. James Brawn is English born, but has lived mainly in New Zealand, Australia, and the U.S. His teachers come with authentic pedigrees—Margaret Schofield, sired by Solomon, Ronald Farren-Price, sired by Arrau, and Rita Reichman, sired by Rudolf Serkin and Horszowski. Winner of prizes, grants, awards, and a full scholarship to London’s Royal Academy of Music, Brawn has participated in master classes given by András Schiff, Tamás Vásáry, Stephen Kovacevich, Fou Ts’ong, and Menahem Pressler; and he has studied chamber music with members of the Amadeus and Chilingirian Quartets. Currently based in the Cotswolds, Brawn begins his odyssey to perform and record the complete Beethoven piano sonatas through 2011–2015. The first fruits of that journey are harvested on these two individual albums.

Rather than proceeding chronologically through the sonatas, as have recent cycle presenters François-Frédéric Guy, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, and András Schiff, Brawn seems to be cherry-picking the popular “name” sonatas first, perhaps as a savvy marketing strategy, since potential buyers are more likely to purchase a recording of Beethoven sonatas by a pianist they may not have heard of before when the disc contains a clutch of celebrated works, like the “Moonlight,” “Pathétique,” and “Waldstein.” Having listened carefully to Brawn’s first two installments in his cycle, I can assure him and the reader that there is no need for such a marketing scheme, for the pianist’s playing is of a technical mastery and interpretive insight such that I would happily listen to him performing any of the sonatas.

Of breathtaking beauty, for example, is Brawn’s subtle shaping and shading of the harmonically enigmatic melody that sets off and runs through the last movement of the “Waldstein” Sonata. What an intimate and intensely poignant confidence Beethoven shares with us, and how expressively Brawn whispers it to our ears at the beginning.

Brawn’s wide-ranging technique, dynamic control, and unerring musical instincts allow him to deliver Beethoven’s most highly charged, Sturm und Drang movements—the finales to the “Moonlight” and “Appassionata” Sonatas, and the first movements of the “Pathétique” and “Appassionata” sonatas—with maximum force and dramatic thrust; while, at the same time, delivering the songful Adagio cantabile of the “Pathétique,” the hypnotic nocturne of the “Moonlight’s” Adagio sostenuto , and the spectral mystery of the “Waldstein’s” Introduzione with uncanny sensitivity to the unique subtleties and tonal gradations of each of these movements.

The two so-called “easy” sonatas, Nos. 19 and 20, are examples of Beethoven’s “domestic” music, most likely written to be played by the composer’s students and friends. Brawn plays them accordingly, with fluent tone and technique that makes them sound candid but not entirely without sophistication. The op. 2 Sonatas (1794–1795)—Brawn gives us Nos. 1 and 3 of the set—are Beethoven’s first published piano sonatas; yet, already by the No. 3, we have a very lengthy and substantive work. The first and second movements exhibit special developmental skill, and the third movement is premonitory of Beethoven’s manic scherzos to come.

There are certain great works in the literature that one can simply not have too many versions of, and Beethoven’s piano sonatas are among them. So I wouldn’t worry about overcrowding your collection with yet another cycle, especially when it’s one that’s as good as this. Brawn proves himself a Beethoven master, and his mastery is fully revealed by MSR’s excellent recordings.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

Sonata for Piano no 3 in C major, Op. 2 no 3 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  James Brawn (Piano)
Period: Classical 
Written: 1794-1795; Vienna, Austria 
Sonata for Piano no 23 in F minor, Op. 57 "Appassionata" by Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  James Brawn (Piano)
Period: Classical 
Written: 1804-1805; Vienna, Austria 
Sonata for Piano no 1 in F minor, Op. 2 no 1 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  James Brawn (Piano)
Period: Classical 
Written: 1793-1795; Vienna, Austria 

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