A BEETHOVEN ODYSSEY - VOL.5
Piano Sonatas Nos.5, 6, 7 & 10
Ludwig van Beethoven
JAMES BRAWN, piano
Click HERE to see James Brawn discussing Beethoven's Piano Sonatas.
“Solid, intelligent Beethoven here: a Steinway Artist, Brawn brings a terrific technique to these well-worn sonatas… Textures are clear, everything is intelligent… The slight Op 14/2 is a serene jewel of a performance. Brief but insightful notes from Brawn and a fine recording reflect the care taken.”
Colin Clarke, International Piano [November 2018]
“listeners will find much of interest in these interpretations... this current release leaves us with much rewarding listening. The acoustic conditions that apply at Brawn’s recording studio in Potton Hall, Suffolk continue to underline his style of delivery, most suitable in these earlier and more intimate works which reveal Beethoven’s energy and delight in his own creativity throughout most of the four sonatas. Brawn’s interpretations reveal a true personality at work, one that finds a coherent path and stays on it without getting bogged down in glutinous gravity.”
Clive O’Connell [October 2018]
“[In Op.10, No.1] Brawn’s hauntingly sustained soft playing holds special interest in the Adagio molto… His fast finale approaches Beethoven’s optimistic Prestissimo directive, yet never at the sacrifice of articulation and voicing… [In Op.10, No.2] the music’s witty reserve comes across… The Allegretto’s cameo-like intimacy evokes memories of Wilhelm Kempff’s wonderful mono and stereo DG interpretations, while the Presto finale’s lightness and élan contrast with the more assertive rhythmic drive heard from Rudolf Serkin and Seymour Lipkin. Op 10 No 3’s bracing outer movements stand out for clarity and control … [Brawn’s] pianism displays sufficient freedom and flexibility. Again, Kempff’s ghost hovers benignly over Brawn’s gracefully clipped Menuetto… MSR’s attractive close-up sonic perspective befits Brawn’s conceptions. This is the finest release so far in Brawn’s Beethoven cycle, and I look forward to the remaining installments.
Jed Distler, Gramophone [June 2018]
“[Brawn’s playing is] tautly rhythmic and carefully attuned to the music’s various technical quirks… In the C minor Sonata he delivers a reading that brims with raw energy – the outer movements feature some wonderfully aggressive attacks – but is also delicately shaped and warmly lyrical. The climax of the slow movement, in particular, is played with brilliant clarity, rhythmically and tonally. Brawn’s F major Sonata is similarly vital… The slow-ish second is suitably mysterious and shadowy, its syncopated recapitulation executed with textbook precision. And the rollicking finale’s a blast: exuberant and explosive. As for the D-major Sonata, Brawn turns in a robust, glowing account of the mighty first movement, one that’s full of spirit… The lilting third [movement] is all elegance while the fourth ably recaptures the vim of the first. Closing things out is a resoundingly graceful performance of the G-major Sonata, its first movement smooth and direct… the third [movement] overflows with spunk, Brawn having a blast with its jumble of hemiolas, snap-rhythms, and triplet runs. MSR’s engineering is clear and well-balanced. The recorded sound captures the crispness of Brawn’s playing effectively: he never overuses the pedal and ably draws out the music’s textures.”
Jonathan Blumhofer, Arts Fuse [May 2018]
“[James Brawn] has the ability to make you hear the music in a different way much of the time. That isn't easy to do in Beethoven's well traversed sonata oeuvre, as you can imagine, but I previously observed what I thought was perhaps his strongest natural gift – his "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." Indeed, and in this group of four works, he once again seems to find the heart of each one. Even listeners strongly accustomed to the interpretations of a favorite pianist in these sonatas should find Brawn's performances to their liking... In sum, once more, Brawn presents the listener with a thoroughly brilliant collection of performances in his ongoing cycle of the Beethoven sonatas... Brawn is a pianist to watch and certainly an artist who has something to say in Beethoven. The sound reproduction by MSR Classics is vivid and well balanced. The pianist's album notes are enlightening. Strongly recommended.”
Robert Cummings, Classical Net [April 2018]
“I continue to be highly impressed by James Brawn’s playing... what I like about Brawn’s approach is the way in which he seems able to transform the tonal properties of his piano to bring out the unique ambiance of moods and sound worlds of each sonata. This is very beautiful playing that strikes a sympathetic chord in me and resonates on an emotional level. Definitely recommended.”
Jerry Dubins, Fanfare [May/June 2018]
“Absorbed by a wealth of knowledge, James Brawn has wowed audiences with his strict and honorable interpretations of classical music since beginning piano... listening to his keyboard characterization fills the airwaves with unblemished perfection... Steinway piano technician Ulrich Gerhartz and piano tuner Graham Cooke help to brilliantly enliven M. Brawn’s magical delivery. Additionally, James Brawn’s forward outlining the substance of these four compositions is intelligent and well-written. Consistently rendered, via MSR Classics, “A Beethoven Odyssey” is a very worthy reflection of Ludwig van Beethoven’s sonatas.”
Christie Grimstad, ConcertoNet [March 2018]
“The virtues present in the previous releases are all here—stringent channeling of the composer’s innermost ideas, wonderful articulation, fine sense of rubato, and an absolutely uncluttered technical arsenal that presents Beethoven not as a heroic giant but as an immensely personal communicator... Again, a beautiful recording in what can already be considered a classic series.”
Steven Ritter, Audiophile Audition [February 2018]
“James Brawn adds to his status as a world-class Beethoven interpreter in this latest eagerly awaited installment in his series A Beethoven Odyssey… all four sonatas in this program capture an exciting moment in Beethoven’s career when, still in his twenties and in full possession of his hearing, he was establishing himself concurrently as both virtuoso and composer… No. 6, the shortest and lightest of the three, allows the artist the chance to display fine finger-work in the trilling figurations, broken octaves and hand crossings of the opening Allegro… Beethoven puts the theme through a myriad of changes. All of this requires more than mere technique. You also need to have a feeling for comedy, in which regard James Brawn exceeds all other performers I have heard…”
Phil Muse, Atlanta Audio Society [February 2018]
“do listen to these latest recordings by British pianist James Brawn, who uphold[s] tradition with pride and vigour... Brawn instills an urgency and vitality that is hard to ignore.”
StraitsTimes, Singapore [February 2018]
“Brawn’s handling of all four sonatas here continues his approach from earlier releases: he plays cleanly and with feeling, but without overdoing any of the sonatas’ proto-Romantic elements and without exaggerations of tempo or unwarranted changes of rhythm. His playing is perhaps best described as forthright and, to the ear, uncomplicated, but that scarcely means it is unfeeling or uninvolved – quite the opposite. In fact, while Brawn is usually careful to observe Beethoven’s intentions, with notable focus on getting the dynamics correct, he is so determined to elicit the emotional undercurrents of the music that he makes some decidedly historically incorrect decisions by utilizing the resources of a modern piano to play beyond the five-octave range of the instruments for which Beethoven composed and on which he himself played... Brawn’s ongoing Beethoven cycle continues to show him to be a thoughtful pianist who does not draw attention to his own technique but to the intricacies of the music – an approach that works particularly well for works of Beethoven’s time.”
Mark J. Estren, InfoDad [February 2018]
“another very good release in James Brawn’s Beethoven Odyssey. The pianist is as at ease with the seriousness of the three Opus 10 sonatas as he is with the more good-natured Sonata Op.14/2... James Brawn fully exploits the opportunity that Beethoven offers him.”
Remy Franck, Pizzicato [January 2018]
“Brawn responds with effervescent charisma. In truth, though, all of his performances on this disc convey the irrepressible joy of his music making... Pianists inevitably long to add their personal impressions to the recorded legacy of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas, and there are some among them whose singular concepts of this extraordinary body of work add new dimensions to listeners’ understanding and enjoyment of the Sonatas. Rarest of all the pianists who record the Sonatas are those whose endeavors are dedicated to amplifying Beethoven’s pianistic voice with the aid of their own distinctive voices. It is among these few pianists, the true followers of Schnabel, that James Brawn’s work places him, and this fifth volume of his Beethoven Odyssey makes the 190 years since Beethoven’s death seem like mere moments. These are James Brawn’s own interpretations, but it is not difficult to imagine Beethoven’s playing echoing in them.”
Joey Newsome, Voix des Arts [December 2017]
“You know how when you've got a favorite actor or actress in a part, and you can't imagine anyone else doing it better: Like Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind, Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl, Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect, John Thaw in Inspector Morse, or more recently Sam Elliot in The Hero? You know that other people could have done justice to the roles, but you doubt that anyone else could have improved upon them. That's the way I feel about English-born pianist James Brawn and his performances in the Beethoven piano sonatas. Which is to take nothing away from any of the fine sets of sonatas we've gotten over the years from such distinguished artists as Alfred Brendel, Daniel Barenboim, Stephen Kovacevich, Claudio Arrau, Wilhelm Kempff, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Maurizio Pollini, Artur Schnabel, and others. And I can't claim that Brawn does anything any better than these other pianists. It's just that Brawn's work always feels consistently "right"; it's never flashy or eccentric, extroverted, idiosyncratic, or dull. With Brawn you just can't seem to think of the music played any other way... when Brawn finishes the complete sonatas, the set will rival the very best available. So far, there are simply none better... The piano sounds about as good as it could sound, namely, like a real piano. The sonics are clear and clean, the hall resonance is nigh-well perfect, and the miking distance provides a realistic seating position on the part of the listener.”
John J. Puccio, Classical Candor [December 2017]
“[James Brawn's] Beethoven is lucid, direct, and most importantly, real... These interpretative characteristics of Brawn's approach to Beethoven's music have not changed, and would now include an unparalleled focus on expressive details. His attention to Beethoven's tempo, dynamic and expressive markings is almost devout... this is 100% Beethoven from phrase to phrase, page to page, start to finish, and always at the service of the composer's master plan. The recorded sound, thanks to recording engineer Ben Connellan, is close and natural, and accurately captures this Steinway's well-balanced tone from top to bottom. It also avoids the usual pitfalls of added reverb or staging, leaving the piano exactly where it belongs. This MSR Classics traversal of the complete Beethoven sonatas is well worth investigating.”
Jean-Yves Duperron, Classical Music Sentinel [November 2017]
Click HERE to hear an interesting radio interview on RadioClassic in Shanghai.
Click HERE to read a fascinating feature on Brawn's Odyssey appearing in Clavier Companion.
THE OPUS 10 SONATAS
PIANO SONATA NO.5 IN C MINOR, OP.10 NO.1
I began work on this sonata in Melbourne, Australia, in December 2008 and finally recorded it at Potton Hall in the UK in April of 2017. It is the first of the Op.10 trio of sonatas which were dedicated to the Countess Anna Margarete von Browne, whose husband was an important patron of Beethoven around the time of their composition (between 1796 and 1798). The sonata contains three wonderfully contrasted movements filled with dramatic tension, vocal lines and musical ideas that foreshadow elements of Beethoven’s future compositions. The first movement (C minor), is to be played at a very lively tempo with quite angular phrasing and dotted rhythms. The second theme provides some relief in the relative major key. As in all Beethoven, the dynamic range is extreme, and together with sudden changes, produce feelings of intense expression. The very slow second movement in A-flat major has great pathos. It is in A-B-A-B form with a Coda that is generous and warm. The sustained legato vocal line fades to a pianissimo ending on the tonic chord. The Finale is quite a surprise and very fast. Beethoven uses syncopation and varied articulation to great comedic effect. The middle section, the development, hammers out the “fate” motif and the Coda contains a slow diminished seventh arpeggio figure that can be heard later in his “Tempest” sonata (No.17).
PIANO SONATA NO.6 IN F MAJOR, OP.10 NO.2
Unfortunately, none of the sonatas on this recording have nicknames. Perhaps they might be more popular and performed more often with descriptive titles. Of course Beethoven, like many composers, was content with just a publishing opus number. Could this Opus 10 No.2 be given a name like “The Jester” as suggested by a friend of mine? It was one of Beethoven’s favourite sonatas, sharing the F major key signature with both his “Spring” violin sonata and the “Pastoral” symphony. Beethoven was always proving his ability as a great pianist and genius composer in tandem. The first movement is long, with both sections being repeated, requiring a virtuoso stamina and fine control of finger work to handle the extensive broken octaves and crossed hands. The Allegretto is in the form of a Minuet and Trio, with a feeling of darkness pervading the F minor outer sections. The Presto movement is highly virtuosic and demanding for the pianist. It is in sonata form, but with elements of fugato style.
PIANO SONATA NO.7 IN D MAJOR, OP.10 NO.3
The longest and greatest of the Op.10 sonatas, No.3 in D major has four movements. It follows traditional Classical sonata tempo structure: fast, slow, dance, fast. The sonata begins with a popular thematic device known as the “Mannheim rocket”, brilliant staccato ascending octaves followed immediately by a legato descending phrase. The first four notes form a motif that reappears in various guises throughout the sonata. The second group and development utilises it almost endlessly. At the time of the work’s composition, Beethoven was confined to a piano that only had a five octave range - F to F. In this recording, I have chosen to play beyond that range in those measures where the phrase requires an extension of notes above or below. The D minor slow movement is one of the most dramatic and tragic in the earlier sonatas. It is in sonata form and in a key that expresses the utmost seriousness and feelings of lamentation. Beethoven tries in vain to give some hope at the beginning of the development in F major, but the mournful sobbing cries of a man in pain return and descend to the recapitulation. The coda is impassioned and finishes in gloomy resignation. But life begins again in the following Menuetto and Trio. The depression lifts and Beethoven is able to smile and have fun, especially in the G major trio section. The Rondo begins with a theme that asks a question, and many times over! Each time, there are variations in dynamics, notes and rhythm. The close of the sonata evaporates to nothing; just a chromatic scale and descending arpeggio ending in dramatic silence.
PIANO SONATA NO.10 IN G MAJOR, OP.14 NO.2
Beethoven dedicated the two Op.14 sonatas to the wealthy Baroness Josefa von Braun, an important patroness of that time. Composed in his late twenties, the second sonata has a lyrical quality and is in three movements. The Allegro, in G major, begins amiably enough with a cantabile legato theme, but contains some rhythmic ambiguity. The development is long and dramatic with many key changes, pauses and sudden dynamic contrasts. The second movement, Andante, is in the form of a theme and three variations. It sounds a little like a military march in alla breve time, but with a rather humorous quality. After the surprise ending, the Scherzo (a “joke”) follows in Rondo form. It is fast, and filled with rhythmic ambiguities from the outset. Scales, crossed hands, pauses, accents and dramatic silences bring this sonata to a delightful and quite magical ending.
[James Brawn, October 2017]
began his career at age 12 with an Australian debut in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.25 in C major. Brawn credits subsequent achievements to the great pianists with whom he has studied, taking pride in teachers who trace their pedagogical lineage back to Ludwig van Beethoven, Frédéric Chopin, Franz Liszt and Clara Schumann. Yet, he has forged his own musical path, as a soloist, chamber musician and pedagogue. Born in England in 1971, his career in music began in New Zealand, where he began piano lessons at age seven. He performed works by Bela Bartók on New Zealand television and won his first awards in Auckland. The family moved to Australia the following year, where he studied with Margaret Schofield, Ronald Farren-Price and Rita Reichman, winning major prizes at all the Melbourne competitions as well as the Hephzibah Menuhin Award, presented by Yehudi Menuhin. In 1987, Brawn reached the concerto final of the ABC Young Performers Awards, which led to concerts with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. He continued private study with Rita Reichman in Philadelphia on a grant from the Australia Arts Council, and in 1988 received a full scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music in London, where he won many recital awards, including the Beethoven Prize and 20th Century Prize. At age 19, Brawn won the Keyboard Final of the Royal Over-Seas League Music Competition at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, which resulted in solo recitals and chamber music partnerships at music societies and festivals across the United Kingdom. From 1993-2001, Brawn taught piano and chamber music at King’s College and St. John’s College schools in Cambridge. In 2001, he returned to Australia to take up a piano teaching position at highly regarded Scotch College, where he co-founded the biennial Scotch College Piano Festival. Brawn has recorded for RTHK Radio 4 in Hong Kong, ABC Classic FM, and 3MBS radio in Melbourne. He returned to the United Kingdom in 2010, performing regular solo recitals at venues in and around London, including St. James’s Piccadilly, Blackheath Halls, Foundling Museum, The Forge, Royal Over-Seas League and St. Olave Church. Significant engagements include recitals at Chichester Cathedral, Cheltenham Town Hall, the Bösendorfer concert series at St. Mary Magdalene and the ‘Pianists of the World’ series at St.Martin-in-the-Fields. Brawn has performed in master classes with András Schiff, Tamás Vásáry, Menahem Pressler and Stephen Kovacevich, and studied chamber music with members of the Amadeus and Chilingirian Quartets. Recital performances have taken him to France, Italy, China, Canada and the United States. In 2015, James Brawn was made a Steinway Artist and during 2016 he joined the piano faculty of the FaceArt Institute of Music in Shanghai. [ www.jamesbrawn.com
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
(1770 - 1827)
PIANO SONATA NO.5 IN C MINOR, OP.10 NO.1 (1796-98)
I. Allegro molto e con brio
II. Adagio molto
III. Finale (Prestissimo)
PIANO SONATA NO.6 IN F MAJOR, OP.10 NO.2 (1796-98)
PIANO SONATA NO.7 IN D MAJOR, OP.10 NO.3 (1796-98)
II. Largo e mesto
III. Menuetto (Allegro) & Trio
IV. Rondo (Allegro)
PIANO SONATA NO.10 IN G MAJOR, OP.14 NO.2 (1798-99)
III. Scherzo (Allegro assai)