A BEETHOVEN ODYSSEY
MSR Classics MS 1465
Not that there’s any cause for complaint in facing another cycle of the Beethoven piano sonatas. Such an exercise has occupied the talents of many artists, some of whom have brought new life to hoary standards from the well-worn catalogue; we would be much the poorer without the recordings from Arrau, Brendel and Pollini. British-born and sometime-Australian resident James Brawn has entered the lists with this CD, which has been swiftly followed by three others; currently, he is exactly half-way through the cycle of 32 and, like any sensible artist, is not taking them on sequentially.
In this first essay, Brawn performs the first and last of the Op. 2 job-lot dedicated to Haydn, followed by the blistering Op. 57 in F minor, the Appassionata. Each reading is finely calibrated in meeting the composer’s multiplex of technical demands, and the performer reaches a persuasive accommodation with the individual sonatas’ intellectual and emotional rigour.
Beginning at the beginning, Brawn impresses straightaway in the Op. 2 F minor Sonata No. 1, not least with his accounting for Beethoven’s sforzandi. These are treated humanely, as abrupt interjections, not belts around the listener’s ear-hole. So the texture remains clear throughout, especially in the first Allegro where Brawn avoids the usual trap of blurring passages of maximum activity, chiefly by observing a sensible dynamic spectrum and maintaining a brisk pace in which the trills are handled as integral icing.
The ensuing Adagio enjoys careful treatment with small touches of rubato that still preserve the movement’s fluency. The only possible fault I could find in the Menuetto was one sforzando too many, while the finale was taken very fast, as required, with a sustained reliability of delivery in the segment’s chains of left-hand arpeggios. A passage of particular interest comes between bars 161 and 172; excitingly urgent in its emphasis on the bass melody the first time around, then even more so with the reinforced right-hand doubling on the repeat. Speaking of which, Brawn observes that of the movement’s second-half – easy to accomplish in the studio, of course, but you rarely hear it in live performances, especially from younger interpreters.
For the Sonata No. 3 in C Major, the semiquaver passage-work comes across in emphatic and digitally decisive shape, yet the first movement’s exposition is distinguished by a generous fluency, only faltering at bars 156-8, the sole question mark in a set of pages that rattle past with fitting assurance and contentment. For the Adagio, Brawn is intent on observing melodic continuity rather than following the usual pattern and detaching notes in the onward flow, as from bar 43 inwards; unexpected, but it works for me.
A generously applied staccato dominates the Scherzo wherever slurs are not indicated, but the Trio is the opposite – a melange of pedal-sustained right-hand arpeggios. In the spritzig Allegro finale, the lightly articulated attack is refreshing, as intended. Here the only awkwardness comes in the busy pendant to the main theme from bars 8-16, and at its recurrence later on at 116-205 – but then I can’t recall another interpreter apart from Brendel who can give these segments some persuasive kind of organic continuity.
Ten years lie between these two works and the Op. 57 which is one of the four most popular of the composer’s output in this form. Brawn’s reading has an admirable spaciousness right from the opening which is handled as a true Allegro rather than a shock-and-horror show of inconsistent metres. In finding and communicating a structural cogency in these challenging pages, Brawn is distinguishing himself from the ruck; not afraid to give full weight to the composer’s explosive, almost manically insistent blocks of full chords alternating between the hands, and then giving an urgency to the counter-weighted piano leavening while avoiding any hint of neurasthenic twitching. His account of the Piu allegro is exemplary, carried off with passion and lucidity, most notable in a bracing passage from bars 249-256 – as powerful and biting as you could want.
The pianist treats the central Andante‘s theme with deliberation, allowing himself the space to linger at a few points, although the following variations come across as regular without metronomic rigidity. The last Allegro concludes the drama with plenty of character, its almost-continual restlessness carried off as all-of-a-piece, dynamically sensible and unflustered. Brawn powers through the coda, hitting his left-hand accents manfully in the sonic mash of bars 325-340 and bringing the whole to a rousing conclusion.
This is sensible Beethoven, giving these sonatas a well-rounded airing and facing the interpretative problems with gusto and honesty. Brawn’s command and sympathy are present on every page and I look forward to experiencing the rest of his efforts in this wide-ranging musical exploration.