James Brawn’s Beethoven Piano Sonatas REVIEWED

James Brawn’s Beethoven Piano Sonatas reveal more Brains than Brawn!

Ludwig van Beethoven’s 32 mature piano sonatas give us a kind road map of his career from 1795 to 1822 and are the only genre other than the string quartet to which he returned again and again throughout his life.  Beethoven had no use for the piano concerto, for instance, after 1809 since he no longer appeared in public as a piano soloist due to increasing deafness and he had to give up the premiere of the Emperor for this reason. 

There are also three sonatas published when he was only thirteen years old that are not usually included as part of the complete set, though they remain popular as student pieces and are certainly precocious works.

Mr. Brawn presents the sonatas mixed up so that the first release includes numbers 1, 3, and 23, and this trend continues through the project called “A Beethoven Odyssey.” As the editor was graciously loaned a complete set of these recordings, I was made aware of this ongoing series of Beethoven Sonatas performed by James Brawn by Robert LaPorta, the owner/director of MSR Classics.(Some of these works are showcased in a recent equipment review in the Sound Advocate.)

I must admit that I had never heard of this pianist or this series before, which illustrates the problems faced by all small independent record firms.Thankfully, there are a lot of tiny independent labels in the classical genre who still value music and do so for the right reasons, prioritizing music-making above all else.

And so, I was asked to listen to some of these recordings to give you my thoughts on them from the technical, stylistic, and sonic perspectives.  As of this writing, six volumes are available comprising 23 of the 32 sonatas, and amongst those remaining are the Hammerklavier and the three last sonatas.

First off, technically, the works are easy to assess.  Mr. Brawn, through years of diligent and conscientious study and no doubt a measure of natural talent has acquired a very polished technique at the piano keyboard.  Nothing in the sonatas sounded like it was overly taxing, and nothing was left to chance; he knows every note of these works and plays with great certainty and admirable clarity, which in and of itself is enough to recommend these recordings.  One really could not ask for performances that are more true to the printed score than these; all of the articulation dots and dashes are audible, and all of the repeats are observed. 

James Brawn’s Beethoven Piano Sonatas

Tempi tend towards the quicker end of the scale but not to the point that anything feels rushed that shouldn’t.  I could perhaps ask for a little more dynamic stylistic range at both ends; he seems reluctant to go to a real pianissimo (though in the moments when he does, it is especially gorgeous) or to push for the roaring fortississimo that the Steinway D can achieve, but I think perhaps he is of the school of thought that one should not make ugly sounds on the piano. To me, the final two pages of the Appassionata contain some moments where the emotional state is sufficiently frenzied to merit going beyond beauty, but I am also unabashedly Romantic as a musician and as a listener.

Stylistically, everything is “correct” and unforced.  Mr. Brawn’s interpretations are a little more on the cerebral side where I think that Beethoven and particularly the later Beethoven wants something more visceral.  Again, this is a matter of taste, and if you want the kind of recording where the music is allowed to undeniably speak for itself, this would be considered a plus and not a minus. This is not to say that there aren’t some very beautiful and poignant moments because there are. 

The half-pedaled cadenzas (bars 143-158) in the first movement of the Tempest sonata are positively enchanting, the articulation in the fourth movement of the Pastorale (bars 32-35 and the parallel passage later on) is executed perfectly and is extremely difficult to play (not that one would know from how he does it here), and the rondo of the third sonata bubbles along with as much ease and joy as one could want. 

It does bear mentioning that all of these are in the earlier period sonatas, the more Romantic sonatas (from the Waldstein onward) are where I miss the “blood, sweat, and tears” approach of somebody like Rudolf Serkin, or the musical explicitness of Barenboim. However, Brawn’s fleet-footed “Presto alla tedesca” of the twenty-fifth sonata is as good as it gets.

The sonics are extremely well-captured, and it is a question of taste as to what a listener may prefer. The microphones sound like they were placed close to the piano, and particularly in the slow movements, you can hear some delicate noise of the pedal which I found to be somewhat distracting when listening to headphones. Of course, on loudspeakers, it is a completely different story; much less audible though still present.  

Otherwise, the recording itself may be a touch dry, which led me to ask whether these were made in a recording studio or a hall (they were recorded at Potton Hall, Suffolk, United Kingdom by engineer Ben Connellan). This is in no way a problem, but with recordings this precise and sonically detailed, you do tend to hear some extraneous noise from the instrument and it is undoubtedly preferable to audition these recordings on a high-definition audio and loudspeaker system in a good listening room.  On the highest quality audiophile systems, the recording and microphone techniques show an outstanding replica of the piano’s intonations and its placement on the soundstage; quite possibly some of the finest I have ever heard!  

On the other hand, my personal preference is to feel more like I was sitting a bit further out in the hall listening to the piano on stage whereas these recordings are displayed more from the perspective of a seat nearer to the stage (say, 5th-row center, maybe).  In this fashion, you will hear even more detail, but the sound may sometimes lack some “hall ambiance” that you get with microphones placed a bit further back.

My favorite of the Beethoven cycles, and the competition is formidable, is probably Wilhelm Kempff’s stereo set from the 1960s on Deutsche Grammophon which is now available at the bargain price of $32.50 for eight discs.  In more modern sound I very much enjoy Paul Lewis on Harmonia Mundi. 

Notwithstanding the above, James Brawn’s distinctive performances will proudly take a place on my CD rack, even if he performs Beethoven that displays somewhat more brains and pensiveness than his name might suggest.


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