A BEETHOVEN ODYSSEY - VOL.1
Piano Sonatas Nos.1, 3 & 23 "Appassionata"
Ludwig van Beethoven
JAMES BRAWN, piano
Click HERE to see James Brawn discussing Beethoven's Piano Sonatas.
“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... Brawn favours using the full dynamic range and expressive capabilities of the modern Steinway... [his playing is] clear, dignified, authoritative... robust and hearty... when you live with Brawn’s Beethoven for a month or two, as I have in preparing this review, you only grow more impressed... James Brawn’s Beethoven sonata cycle has a chance to be one of the best of its decade.”
Brian Reinhart, MusicWeb International [October 2015]
“James Brawn's growing series of the complete Beethoven Sonatas reveals him to be a naturally impressive artist in this repertoire.”
Robert Matthew-Walker [Musical Opinion, August 2015]
“[Brawn] combines an easy spontaneity and symphonic gravitas in a way rarely encountered on disc since the balmy days of Daniel Barenboim's famous 1960s cycle for EMI. An outstanding Beethovenian: crystal-clear fingerwork, interpretive urgency, harmonically sensitive micro-pedaling, a natural instinct for symphonic structure, arresting yet never over-emphatic sforzandos, super-fast dynamic reflexes, the ability to find wonderment at the way Beethoven re-contextualizes the conventional to create something entirely new and original, and a freshness of spontaneity free of cluttering reverential rhetoric.”
Julian Haylock, International Record Review [March 2015]
“I won't spend time on the question of whether we need yet another set of these thirty-two masterworks, because high artistry is always welcome even in heavily traversed repertory. And what we have here is high artistry indeed. Brawn plays Beethoven in a most imaginative way, often making you hear the music in a different manner. Even when he is fairly straightforward his interpretations still have personality and invention, mainly because he knows how to phrase the music with the utmost sensitivity and intelligence. His tempo selections are never extreme and nearly always come across as a perfect fit for his individual approach, and his wide ranging dynamics are deftly applied with consistency. But there's also that thing you can't always put your finger on here: Brawn's unerring sense for capturing the mood in the music, whether it be sadness, mischief, humor, tragedy, anxiety, or a mixture of these. He always seems on target... The 'Appassionata' Sonata is one of those works that seem to inspire excellent performances. Brawn turns in a fine effort here, infusing the first movement with volatility and darkness, the music seething with tension and portending eruption or collapse at any moment... This one of the darkest and most compelling accounts of the 'Appassionata' Sonata you're likely to encounter. A masterful performance... Brawn draws a substantial yield from the First Sonata as well… The Third Sonata, to me the finest of the three Op. 2 sonatas, brims with infectious joy and vitality in Brawn's hands. But he deftly points up the humor and mischief too, as well as the more serious and profound moments... The sonics provided by MSR Classics are very clear and powerful and the Steinway piano used has a very excellent sound... Over the years I have reviewed numerous individual Beethoven sonata discs here as well as the complete survey by Daniel Barenboim on video in 2013. In addition to Barenboim, many pianists come to mind in this repertory, like Brendel, Ashkenazy, Goode, Schnabel... James Brawn thus far must be considered among the cream of the crop in this challenging repertory. Beethoven sonata mavens will certainly want to consider adding these discs to their collection – and keep a watchful eye on those that follow. Strongly recommended.”
Robert Cummings, ClassicalNet [March 2015]
"James Brawn’s virtuosity, sensitivity and understanding reveal all the subtle beauty in this intense, ravishing music."
John Pitt, New Classics, UK [March 2015]
TOP 10 RECORDINGS - Notable Classical Recordings of 2014
Jonathan Blumhofer, ArtsFuse, Boston [December 2014]
[ * * * * ½ ] “These are very satisfying performances with brain and brawn, bringing to mind many qualities of the great Beethoven interpreters: Kempff, Arrau and Brendel. Further installments in this cycle are keenly awaited.”
Chang Tou Liang, Piano Mania [September 2014]
“In a world populated by talented pianists, James Brawn is a standout. He’s not just a virtuoso, but also a probing, thoughtful musician with strong, creative programming instincts... If, like me, you question why anyone needs to make another recording of anything by Beethoven, you do so with good reason: a recent search at Arkivmusik.com turned up more than 1600 albums devoted just to the works for solo piano... once in a blue moon, a new pianist actually has something fresh to say about the music. When that happens, you sit up and take notice. Enter James Brawn. The U.K.-based pianist has embarked on a complete traversal of the thirty-two sonatas with two mightily impressive discs... Volume One features a fiery account of the F-minor ‘Appassionata’ Sonata... At times in each of these pieces, Brawn’s playing more than lives up to his name: strong and robust. And that’s certainly what moments in these sonatas...call for. But what I found far more impressive and compelling about Brawn’s interpretations is their inward focus... In Brawn’s hands, the contrasts are all strongly present, the big moments thunderous. Yet to hear the way that he spins out the movement’s opening theme, it’s almost as though he’s making up this familiar music on the spot. It emerges, retreats, explodes, contracts again, and continues on its way, unpredictable as ever. The whole performance continues in this vein: Brawn’s is a deeply personal tour of this well-trod musical path, turning up all sorts of hidden insights along the way... The two selections from the op. 2 set are similarly charged with a keen attention to style and pianistic technique married to fervent interpretive sensibilities. I dare you to listen to Brawn’s subtle articulation of the opening theme of the op. 2 no. 1 sonata and not be drawn in... [this] albums mark an auspicious beginning to Brawn’s Beethoven survey and fully justify what, in the hands of a lesser musician, would be a hubristic and wasteful exercise. But Brawn has something to say about this repertoire and it’s worth hearing.”
Jonathan Blumhofer, ArtsFuse [May 2014]
“Noble, expressive Beethoven with exceptional clarity [ * * * * ] - exceptional clarity of the playing, an amazing capacity for nuance on all levels, including dynamics, colour, and tempi... resulting, finely integrated interpretation with uncommon inflection, including extreme tempi in both directions, which, in the case of other pianists, would lead to musical train wrecks… The early sonatas do not merely wander aimlessly about, but are thought out in detail and finely structured… [a] highpoint is the entire ‘Appassionata’, which, due to the clarity of the musical expression, is a very special experience.”
Remy Franck, Pizzicato, Luxemborug [April 2014]
SELECTED AS A "BEST OF YEAR DISC 2013"
Phil Sommerich of Classical Music Magazine interviews James Brawn
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“Beautifully paced...This is very fine playing indeed...There is some formidable playing from Brawn in the faster moving passages but he picks up on all the inner beauty of the quieter passages. He has such a fine technique...”
The Classical Reviewer [March 2014]
“Award-winning British pianist James Brawn follows in the footsteps of such masters as Artur Schnabel and Daniel Barenboim in his ambitious project to record all 32 Piano Sonatas by Beethoven… James Brawn’s virtuosity, sensitivity and understanding reveal all the subtle beauty in this intense, ravishing music”
New Classics UK [February 2014]
“[Brawn’s] playing is of a technical mastery and interpretive insight such that I would happily listen to him performing any of the sonatas… 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.”
Jerry Dubins, Fanfare [March/April 2014]
“One could argue that there can never be too many recordings of the Beethoven sonatas, works that Hans von Bulow referred to as the New Testament of music. I believe there can never be too many good recordings of the Beethoven sonatas, and this disc does not disappoint. Brawn is an adept interpreter of Beethoven's works and his performance is both authentic and personal. The Op.2 No.1, is crisp and charismatic, with an unusual understanding of the composer's early style, while the Op.2 No.3, sparkles with personality and bravura. The Op.57 (‘Appassionata’), a mature tour de force, has an élan that does not overshadow the sonata's depth of character. In general, Brawn performs with notable clarity, attention to textural detail, and a refreshing sense of larger structure. The second volume of this excellent series is also available.”
Vanessa Cornett-Murtada, Clavier Companion [November/December 2013]
CD Spotlight. Masterfully Controlled “When Beethoven moved from Bonn to Vienna in 1792, he sought to make his mark not as a composer, but as a pianist…Given the historical context in which the early sonatas were conceived, it is curious how many pianists treat them as divinely inspired objects to be approached in the loftiest of manners… James Brawn's refreshing interpretation dispels this notion. Rather than treating the Op 2 sonatas as religious relics, he injects each piece with a verve and panache in keeping with the true spirit of their conception… Brawn's vivacious sound continues to impress upon the listener an accurate notion of the context in which these early sonatas were written... Two more laudable aspects of Brawn's playing shine…throughout the [‘Appassionata’]: a warm, full-sounding bass voice and a formidable technique. It is true that performances by many pianists exhibit both of these features, but rarely does an artist bring the two together in such convincing balance. After all, warmth and bravura are difficult to reconcile; one usually causes the other to suffer. Not so with Brawn… Brawn's journey through these towering works is one of the most convincing I've heard in a long time, yet it is difficult to articulate why. There is an element of purity in his playing - some ineffable quality - that transforms even the simplest of phrases into something pristine, something perfect. This quality is likely to remain ineffable, but the intrigue of the matter is fascinating in and of itself. Either way, Brawn has given us lots to think about as we await the second chapter of his odyssey."
Andrew Schartmann, Music & Vision [October 2013]
"Very well recorded... few will be disappointed...”
Musical Opion [December 2013]
“[In Brawn’s Beethoven Odyssey] The trip is not an unpleasant one. The first sonata opens nicely, with an especially compassionate II… The opening allegro of No. 3 makes effective use of Beethoven’s dynamic contrasts, while the slow movement again is played with great delicacy. A fleet scherzo and a vigorous IV round out a first-rate performance. [In the ‘Appassionata’] Brawn strings out some nice phrasing in a well-paced II… In all it’s a fine ‘Appassionata’... the sonics are up to 21st Century standards.”
Koldys, American Record Guide [September/October 2013]
“…excellent instrument and vivid engineering… [the F minor sonata Adagio is] eloquent and well sustained…the Scherzo’s lines [from Sonata No.3] sparkle with character and wit…”
Jed Distler, Gramophone [August 2013]
“This is the first disc in the recording of the 32 Beethoven Sonatas by English born pianist James Brawn. We often hear the question “why another recording of the Beethoven Sonatas?” to me, the answer is straight forward: “because this is by another performer”. Yes, Beethoven, like all composers, affords myriad possibilities of interpretation. And James Brawn proves this right from the first bar of the first Sonata on the disc... Despite strict observance to the text, Brawn's spirit as well as personal, original ideas on how to interpret Beethoven’s notes, rests, dynamics, tempi, etc. shine through. Most interesting and attractive to me is the contrast of colours, pedalling, phrasing, dynamics… I wholeheartedly recommend this recording.”
Alberto Portugheis, EPTA Journal [May 2013]
BBC Music [June 2013]
“[ * * * * * ] This album marks the beginning of what may be a complete Beethoven piano sonata series…If that is the case then we are in for one whale of a treat, for Brawn’s pianism—and more importantly, his interpretative skills—are formidable indeed, some of the best recent Beethoven playing I have heard, and these sonatas have been coming at us like a hurricane for the last 10 years or so, some brilliant editions in the best modern surround sound, some simply stereo, like this one… Too often the First Sonata in F-minor is given a perfunctory run-through, a sort of Haydnesque let’s-get-on-with-it approach. While the Haydn of the sturm und drang period certainly haunts this sonata all the way through, by the time we get to the end we are in the clutches of a new and full-fledged romanticism, just bursting to escape the confines of sonata form. That doesn’t happen here—sonata form remains intact—but you can already see the end coming. The first movement of this wonder is made even more wonderful by Brawn’s rather clipped phrasing and ultra-short staccatos—the effect heightens the drama greatly and sets the scene for a performance of infinite affection and intensity. When the last movement arrives he doesn’t hesitate to give the piece a flamboyant and flowing sense of pedal and rhapsody which taints the whole work with a sense of something far more advanced than the first sonata the composer ever penned… The Third Sonata, which is calmer but explores some interesting harmonic byways (and is also dedicated to Haydn), attempts to exploit the piano in ways that it had not been before, ending with great bravura and ushering in a whole new world of pianistic undertaking. Brawn is on top of it all and meets each challenge Beethoven presents… The ‘Appassionata’ is of course one of the greatest warhorses in the literature, a magnificent example of how Beethoven was learning to manipulate his motives into something far beyond the confines of their initial seeds. The outer movements are sonata form, with the middle movement simple variations, but the drama comes in through the sudden contrasts and tempo changes, keeping the listener on the edge of the seat in this aural page-turner. It’s tough for any performance to etch its way into the catalog here, for there are some great ones out there. I remember the old RCA called Last Concert for Israel where Rubinstein gives an electrifying performance while missing what seemed like half the notes in the last movement. Here Brawn zaps us as well, but hits them all in a performance of great finesse and excitement… Keep your eye on this one—it could be a stunner if they take it all the way.”
Steven Ritter, Audiophile Audition [May 2013]
"[ * * * ] this British-born pianist who appears to have lived all over the world still supplies significant pleasure in the first volume of his Beethoven Odyssey, already on sale online... [the] Sonata No.3 [and] the ‘Appassionata’ [are] crisp and forthright, thoughtfully phrased, with a judicious balance between head and heart.”
Geoff Brown, The Times, London [March 2013]
“Brawn has everything it takes for a Beethoven interpreter, including an unfailing ear for sonority and dynamics, a superb sense of rhythm, a keyboard touch judiciously varied according to the particular sound and texture he wishes to evoke, and an intelligent grasp of the entire musical canvas of each sonata, and not just its choice details, as delicious as they often are… That guiding intelligence carries over into his program building, as well. In the present instance, placing two of Beethoven’s earliest Sonatas, Opus 2, No. 1 in F minor and No. 3 in C major in the same recital as his mature middle period masterwork No. 23 in F minor, Op. 53, the universally acclaimed ‘Appassionata,’ was more than just a stroke of luck. These early works of 1795, too often dismissed as transitional works with roots in the Viennese Classical Era, actually look boldly to the future, and Brawn does not take them lightly. Both use their opening movements to set the mood for all that follows, in a way the classical sonata of Mozart and Haydn seldom did. With swiftly ascending melodic figures, arpeggios in passagework and chords, lightning-sudden key changes and big dynamic contrasts, and particularly in the use of strongly accented sforzandi (literally 'punches') in the opening Allegro of Sonata No. 1, Beethoven makes himself known as a radical new presence to be dealt with… Sonata No. 3 is an even weightier, more portentous work, adding broken chords and off-beat sforzandi to the composer’s arsenal in the opening movement and blistering staccato octaves and trills that ratchet up the level of excitement in the spirited, high-energy finale. Without distorting his interpretation in favor of these 'special effects,' Brawn uses them as Beethoven surely intended, to keep the listener off-balance and on the edge of expectation… Finally, we arrive at the 'Appassionata' of 1805. Now we realize what Brawn has been doing all along in his beautifully paced and meticulously developed accounts of the two early sonatas. He has been preparing us for their fruition in Beethoven’s middle period. What were special effects in Sonatas 1 and 3 are now completely integrated as part of the Beethoven style we all know and love (and which may have been hard at times for his contemporaries to take). Imagination and superlative technique meet happily in the 'Appassionata,' and Brawn revels in both elements even as he realizes this work’s bold formal outlines. He is very much at home with its rich sonorities in the opening Allegro, including the composer’s expressive use of what has been termed the piano’s ‘cello register’… Brawn gives proper weight to each of the four almost crudely simple variations in the Andante in order to set us up for the highly dramatic moment when the soft diminished seventh at the very end is succeeded by a much louder diminished seventh, and – Attacca – we are plunged headlong into the maelstrom of the finale. Without pause, Brawn’s virtuosity takes us resolutely through this sensational whirlwind movement and its even faster and more strongly accented coda, all the way to the thrilling conclusion. In the process, he does not fail to sound the intended note of desolation when the sonata ends, as do only a handful of other works in Beethoven’s career, without the expected major-key resolution.”
Phil Muse, Audio Society of Atlanta [February 2013]
Like the immortal plays of William Shakespeare, Ludwig van Beethoven’s thirty-two piano sonatas are the highest expression of Western culture. In the late nineteenth century, the great pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow remarked that they were the pianist’s “New Testament.” The sonatas chronicle a tumultuous period in Beethoven’s life that lasted from his mid-twenties to early fifties. Beethoven’s spirit profoundly animates, moves, and informs the performance of these works. So it is hardly any wonder that they constitute a central pillar of the concert pianist’s repertoire.
Beethoven’s music accompanies musicians throughout their lives. As a child, Brawn experienced the dramatic opening strains of the Fifth Symphony and listened to his mother practise the haunting ‘Moonlight’ sonata. These early impressions inspired him to begin piano study while living with his family in New Zealand. He first performed Beethoven’s sublime Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major in Australia at the age of thirteen.
During his teenage years in Australia, Brawn studied with pupils of Beethoven interpreters like Solomon Cutner, Claudio Arrau, and Rudolf Serkin, all of whom had a strong connection to and affinity with the composer’s music. He later entered the Royal Academy of Music in London, where he received the Beethoven Prize for a performance of the ‘Waldstein’ sonata. More recently, he has given recitals in both hemispheres that included the ‘Pathétique’, ‘Moonlight’, ‘Tempest’, ‘Waldstein’, ‘Appassionata’, and ‘Les Adieux’ sonatas.
These pieces are entirely modern, relevant, and necessary to life in the twenty-first century. The pianist finds himself in the role of time traveller and medium, thus becoming the link between Beethoven and present-day audiences. Despite their enormous physical, intellectual and emotional challenges, these sonatas provide the kind of artistic fulfillment that pianists like Brawn crave. Listeners all over the world are the lucky beneficiaries of recording projects such as this, which make new and highly personal interpretations of these great works available to a larger audience.
An Australian debut in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 marks the start of pianist James Brawn
’s solo career at the age of twelve. Brawn credits all subsequent achievements to the great pianists with whom he was privileged to study. He takes justifiable pride in the fact that his teachers trace their pedagogical lineage back to Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, and Clara Schumann. Yet Brawn has also forged his own musical path as a solo performer, chamber musician, and
pedagogue. Born in England in 1971, he has lived in New Zealand, Australia, the UK, and the United States. Brawn’s musical journey began in New Zealand, where he started piano lessons at age seven. He played Bartok on New Zealand television and, in 1979, won his first awards in Auckland. The family moved to Australia the following year. There, he studied with Margaret Schofield, Ronald Farren-Price, and Rita Reichman throughout the 80s. The talented young pianist won major prizes at all the Melbourne Eisteddfods competitions. Yehudi Menuhin also awarded him the Hephzibah Menuhin Memorial Scholarship. In 1987, Brawn reached the concerto final of the ABC Young Performers Awards, which led to concerts with the Adelaide and Melbourne Symphony Orchestras.
A major overseas study grant from the Australia Arts Council enabled him to continue work with Rita Reichman in Philadelphia. In 1988, he received a full scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music in London. As a student there, Brawn won many recital awards, including the Beethoven and 20th century prizes. He also performed in master classes with András Schiff, Tamás Vásáry and Stephen Kovacevich. In addition, Brawn studied chamber music with members of the Amadeus and Chilingirian Quartets. He attended the Britten-Pears and Lake District summer schools.
At the age of nineteen, Brawn won the Keyboard Final of the Royal Over-Seas League Music Competition. This resulted in solo recitals at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall and chamber music partnerships at UK music societies and festivals. He then continued studies with the Armenian pianist Nelly Akopian and the Slovenian pianist Marina Horak. From 1993-2001, James Brawn taught piano and chamber music at the King’s College and St. John’s College choir schools in Cambridge, England. During this same period, he gave recitals with his wife, soprano Susan Brawn, and sister, oboist Victoria Brawn. These collaborations led to performances at the Cambridge Elgar Festival and the Purcell Room in London. From 1996-98, James and Victoria Brawn also received sponsorship from the Countess of Munster Recital Scheme, which provides outstanding young artists with greater visibility as they transition from study to professional careers in music.
In 2001, he returned to Australia to take up a piano teaching position at Scotch College, in one of the finest music departments in the country. Whilst teaching at Scotch College, he appeared in recital at the Melba Festival, Melba Conservatorium, Monash University, and music societies throughout Victoria. Brawn recorded for RTHK Radio 4 in Hong Kong, ABC Classic FM, and 3MBS radio in Melbourne. He also co-founded the biennial Scotch College Piano Festival during that period. Brawn returned to England in 2010 and is currently based in the Cotswolds.
He performs regular solo recitals at venues in Birmingham, Cheltenham, Chichester, and London, including St. James’s Piccadilly, St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Blackheath Halls, Foundling Museum, The Forge, Royal Over-Seas League, and St. Olave Church. Significant engagements in the UK include the Bösendorfer concert series at St. Mary Magdalene and the ‘Pianists of the World’ series at St. Martin-in-the-Fields. He has also performed in recital in Hong Kong, Brunei, Paris, Sicily, and New Orleans.
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
PIANO SONATA NO.1 IN F MINOR, OP.2 NO.1 (1795)
III. Menuetto (Allegretto) & Trio
PIANO SONATA NO.3 IN C MAJOR, OP.2 NO.3 (1795)
I. Allegro con brio
III. Scherzo (Allegro) & Trio
IV. Allegro assai
PIANO SONATA NO.23 IN F MINOR, OP.57 "APPASSIONATA" (1804-05)
I. Allegro assai – Più allegro
II. Andante con moto
III. Allegro ma non troppo – Presto