James Brawn’s Beethoven Odyssey Continues

Review by: Jed Distler

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Artistic Quality: 8

Sound Quality: 8

“A Beethoven Odyssey” of course refers to James Brawn’s traversal of the 32 Piano Sonatas, which approaches three-quarters completion with Volume 6. For the most part he favors lean textures and crisp articulation that complements Beethoven’s essentially linear aesthetic in the manner of notable Beethoven practitioners like Claude Frank, Seymour Lipkin, Bruce Hungerford, and Friedrich Gulda. His dynamic range is relatively circumscribed compared to Claudio Arrau and Daniel Barenboim, yet sufficient enough to convey the composer’s frequent subito shifts, while sforzandos have plenty of sting.

I’ve noted in previous volumes Brawn’s habit of beginning certain movements briskly, only to settle into a more comfortable pace as the music unfolds, as in both Op. 26’s Scherzo and cascading Allegro finale. On the other hand, Brawn’s ever-so-slight pressing ahead in the Op. 7 first movement’s tied syncopations seems borne out of urgency and forward impetus, very much in the Schnabel mode. The same sonata’s Allegretto is graceful, indeed, almost balletic, and features wittily pointed up ascending left hand scale-work.

Brawn unifies the tempo relationships throughout Op. 26’s opening Andante con variazioni well, although one could imagine more color and character. For example, he tones down Variation Four’s legato/staccato contrasts, whereas Michel Dalberto goes the opposite route in his recent recording on the La Dolce Volta label.

The B-flat Op. 22 sonata elicits one of Brawn’s finest performances in his cycle. He captures both the first movement’s deadpan humor and momentary petulant outbursts, while the Minuetto’s cameo-like lightness evokes memories of Wilhelm Kempff’s classic interpretation. Brawn’s Rondo is more of a Moderato than an Allegretto, and his double notes aren’t quite so supple as they are elsewhere on this disc.

One should mention the pianist’s well-written booklet notes, which are musically informative from a deeply personal perspective. MSR’s close-up, slightly dry perspective seems right for Brawn’s conceptions. Overall, Brawn’s Beethoven has grown more assured and direct with each successive volume in this cycle, and I look forward to the next installments.



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Recording Details:

Album Title: A Beethoven Odyssey Volume 6
Reference Recording: Op. 7: O'Conor (Telarc), Op. 26: Richter (Philips), Op. 22: Kempff (DG)

  • BEETHOVEN, LUDWIG VAN:
    Piano Sonata No. 4 in E-flat major Op. 7; Piano Sonata No. 11 in B-flat major Op. 22; Piano Sonata No. 12 in A-flat major Op. 26 (“Funeral March")
  • James Brawn (piano)

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