Let’s notch it up a gear or two


James Brawn

MSR Classics MS 1466


In this second instalment of Brawn’s review of the complete Beethoven piano sonatas, the performer works through three of the very well-known masterpieces: the Pathetique No 8 in C minor, the Moonlight No 14 in C sharp minor, and the Waldstein No. 21 in C Major.  Each of these is familiar to pianists, both capable and the vaultingly ambitious, necessary obstacles on the path to self-recognition and all capable of fostering self-delusion.   As well, Brawn includes the two ‘easy’ catalogue-listed preludes to the Waldstein, although both Sonatas 19 and 20 were written almost a decade previously than their position suggests, closer in time to the Pathetique and atypically lean in content and texture.

It’s sort of like putting all the populist eggs in one basket and thus it makes the CD an attractive buying proposition.   Fortunately, the finished product is well worth attention for its own sake, beginning with a clean-limbed reading of the C minor work.   As the first disc in this series demonstrated, Brawn has a canny eye for details that others neglect or ignore, like the crescendo five bars into the first movement’s Allegro which comes at the right place rather than featuring in the ascending chord sequence that precedes it.  Throughout these pages   –   and the rest of the work, for that matter  –   Brawn distinguishes himself from many another performer by playing what’s written, giving full courtesy to Beethoven and his listeners.   He keeps to his tempi, maintains a clear texture, gives notes their right length, builds and releases tension with subtlety, and preserves the work’s stark directness of expression.   For once, the sudden Grave bars are delivered with as much sombre weight as they deserve.

Like the first movement, the Adagio cantabile comes across with a balanced deliberation, its progress interspersed with subtle semi-pauses denoting a sectional  change or something as simple as an imminent reprise.   Five bars from the end, for the first time ever, I heard a splendidly achieved crescendo/decrescendo that had never struck me before.   No murky blowsiness in the light-filled Rondo.   Mozart was only dead 7/8 years before and his influence is still pervasive; certainly, Beethoven’s gloom and thunder is approaching but, at this stage, not full-blown.   Here again come details that never struck you previously, like the cut back to piano at bar 182; it’s probably there on many other versions but this time its appearance is striking.    Brawn repeatedly displays an awareness of colour differentiation, as in the change from the semiquaver patterns of bars 107-112 to the immediately-following triplets: the landscape changes abruptly even though the underpinning urgent tension remains constant.

Too much has been inferred about the C sharp minor sonata’s history/background/ positioning in the composer’s love-life, but Brawn communicates from the first the dark, looming passion that informs the work.   He takes the direction delicatissimamente as a prime directive for the opening Adagio which remains on the move, sticking to an orthodox path although a hesitation with the broken 7th chord at bars 35-37 added a human touch to this dour nocturne.   The Allegretto was paced more slowly than other pianists treat it, which is usually as an aimless burst of bucolic sunshine.   In this handling, the page impresses as a more valid sequel to the liquid first movement; here there is doubt, regret, an autumnal calm as the composer pauses before the sonata’s scorching finale.

Brawn tries very hard and almost completely succeeds in making a sforzando on only the first of the repeated chords that finish off each arpeggio run-up in the Presto‘s first theme; it’s a remarkable effect, leaving you dangling.  Yes, other players observe the same dynamic direction but here the dent in your expectations is strikingly sharp.   Some excellent pianism appears with an impressive recovery rate in the leaps that pepper bars 47 to 56, and the demisemiquaver clusters from bars 163 to 165 reverberate like side-drum flourishes.   In all, the player offers a no-nonsense version of this restless Rondo, too often treated with that latitude afforded to Chopin’s final Op. 10 etude.

When the track for Sonata No. 19 began, it suddenly hit me that I’ve never heard this work live.  It is easy to churn out the notes, which may make it unattractive to recitalists,  but the atmospheric vein it explores presents interpretative problems.   Brawn invests it with a dignity that brings to the work’s few pages a kind of substantiality.   He gives its phrases every consideration, avoids any indication of hurrying, but impresses on his audience the movement’s small-framed restraint.   A delight from start to finish, the following Rondo/Allegro is an ignored treasure, packed with finesse; for example, the difference in how the player follows the same expression markings in close succession  –  at bars 120-121 and bars 122-3.

Sonata No. 20 is an open-slather field, with only two definite expression directions in its second movement; you can let yourself go, your realization tempered chiefly by the work’s sunny gentility.   Brawn keeps his attack rational and moderately dynamic; he presents an interesting outline, giving the left hand equal billing rather than falling in love with the optimistic upper melodic ripples.    I greatly appreciated his crispness in the Minuet, specifically his delivery of the over-riding rhythmic figure of dotted quaver-semiquaver- crotchet or minim: the simplest of motifs but once heard, never forgotten   This movement’s three pages enjoy a snappy delivery, a modestly exuberant skip in the Minuet itself well balanced by the lusty gusto of the C Major Trio.   It all makes for a performing style of delicacy without affectation.

Brawn ends his disc with the C Major Waldstein, a cow of a work written in the simplest of keys but loaded with pitfalls.  This version copes with pretty much every handicap that Beethoven loads on, the pace blistering from the rustling repeated bass chords that kick off the journey.   During the second theme’s announcement, Brawn concerns himself with the alto part at bar 38, the line carried on by the tenor at bars 47-48; it’s there to be played but a good many pianists concern themselves mainly with the decorative soprano triplets only.   Still, this executant knows that the only game in town when triplets take over the development is the harmonic changes and he powers through them to achieve maximum effect from the juxtapositions.   Listen to the relentless flying build-up of excitement (through a simple ascending scale in the bass) between bars 268-276 and you’ll hear as gripping a reading of this difficult passage-of-play as you could want.

The second movement Introduzione brings an abrupt change  –  Adagio molto  –  and Brawn delivers that exactly, descending gracefully from the page’s insistent dynamic highpoint to a near-mute bar 26 before gliding into the Rondo tour de force.   For the most part, he follows those notorious sustaining-pedal directions, an oddity I fail to fathom every time I hear this movement.   Moreover, Brawn does excellent, sometimes brilliant work with other obstacles  –  like the two-hand contrary motion triplets that go on and on from bar 352 to 377; later, the glissandi featured in bars 465 and 474 come across with admirable smoothness.    But the movement, despite its few moments of relief, is a slog; most of the interpolated episodes approach the bloody-minded and the trill work required adds a Pelion to Beethoven’s already oppressive Ossa.

Brawn gives a bracing account of this challenging score, not letting himself off by taking the easy road with jog-trot speeds, convenient easing-up at danger points, or slackening the tension with mid-sentence pauses.    There’s worse to come with the Les Adieux, No 28 in A, the Hammerklavier  .  .  .  in fact, all of the last five sonatas are packed with enough unnerving material to deter most of us.    But, so far with Brawn, the signs are more than promising.

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