Blasts from the past


James Brawn

MSR Classics MS1501


Taking a pause from his labours in recording the complete Beethoven piano sonatas , Brawn produced this album that holds the makings of what could have been an old-fashioned recital program, complete with inbuilt encores.   The most substantial work is a regular these days, as well as a favourite of pianists in previous generations: Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.  Some steps down in terms of stamina comes the Bach/Busoni Chaconne transcription, partnered in flamboyance with Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz No. 1.  Less taxing material technically comes in the Liszt Consolation No. 3 in D flat, Rachmaninov’s B minor Prelude, while the first of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier Preludes brings up the rear, whimsically plain-speaking after a welter of barnstorming virtuosity.

Both the smaller Liszt piece and the Bach prelude would be familiar to most pianists, although it takes a fair deal of work to get them sounding as uncluttered as Brawn makes them.   In its one-note-at-a-time progress, the C Major prelude asks for an even pace and a regularity of delivery that also avoids the automatic.  There are no absolutes in pedal use or using the initial notes of each bar as harmonic foci and the performance here is mobile and dutiful.   The Liszt nocturne gives a fine instance of evenly applied left-hand support, letting the melody float on its path unchallenged; perhaps the performer allows himself a fair liberality with pauses before pivotal bar-lines, but the outcome makes as much sense as possible of this simple effusion.

Moving up the degree of difficulty, Brawn creates an imaginative creature in the Rachmaninov piece, revealing the piece’s dark surges of energy carefully, not breaking the thread for effects in those central pages where the massive double-handed four-part chords compete for attention with an elephantine melodic movement.   In fact, judging by this one sample, the performer could have presented a few more from this Op. 32 set to excellent effect; he shows a gift of perceptiveness in unifying the composer’s grinding keyboard mastery with that inescapable granitic melancholy.

Busoni’s transcription and Liszt’s waltz offer a stark contrast in technical responsiveness. Both the products of incomparable pianists, the pieces are opposed in emotional character and underlying force; Busoni’s treatment of the original partita’s unaccompanied violin line is massive over-kill, while Liszt spends much of his time avoiding a waltz metre, even a waltz bar-line as he jumps between fine-spun filigree and pounding martellato passages.

Brawn impresses in the Chaconne with his ease at negotiating inbuilt problems like Busoni’s left-hand chords that stretch the hand to more than discomfort.  Further in, he handles both rapid octaves and sixths passages with controlled rapidity while observing the arranger’s late-Romantic dynamic contrasts.   One of the variations in my edition went AWOL – just before the con fuoco animato direction – but you get swept up in Brawn’s note-avalanche before you first notice.   On the switch to D Major, Brawn succeeds markedly in living up to the quasi Tromboni direction, then contrives to keep the work moving in the fifth of the major-key variants by skillfully arpeggiating the left-hand chords.   Unlike other pianists, Brawn refrains from treating the work in large-scale blocks, although his manipulation of the last two variants before D minor returns is a powerful percussive onslaught of semiquaver alternations between the hands.  The triplets come earlier in Brawn’s closing pages than in my score but he completes the  work with persuasive grit – which is what you need to get through its digital and aural vehemence.

Liszt’s showpiece demands crispness at the outset and this player has its measure with finely clipped articulation before the main melody hits the ground and the whirlwind – with breaks – takes off.   Those scurrying arpeggios and scalar runs across the top of the instrument show a suitable agility, and the sudden shifts in tonality and pace make their points rapidly before Brawn moves us on.   Still, he is not afraid to pull everything back 18 bars before the final Presto – an affecting passage of uneasy calm.  Yes, you can find a few smudges where the action is middle-keyboard, but what do you expect?  The rapidity of response that Liszt asks for  is unnervingly difficult; to get the notes right is a mighty achievement.

Still, after this reading I was left wondering about how closely Brawn was miked at the Potton Hall recording studio; given a more ample reverberation, this work in particular might have gained in aural presence   –   a more resonant envelope, a bit of echo to give its brittle superstructure some greater spatial ambience.

Mussorgsky’s suite is a marvel in live performance, in part for the sadistic pleasure an observer gets watching its execution,  the sheer effort of working through its pages.  But it has attracted pianists galore to record it; multiple times for Ashkenazy, Horowitz and Richter, among others.   Brawn’s version is straightforward, without any re-shaping or distortions, even though the original has scope for dynamic adventurousness.   As with previous recordings by this artist, you notice some elements that have not struck you before, like the crotchet in the left hand at the start of bar 60 in Gnomus when all you’ve heard before is the expected minim.  The second Promenade gave an addition to the composer’s gallery – a study in contemplation as the gallery-visitor moves along, illustrated with telling restraint by this page of delicatezza playing.

Keeping to the letter of the law, Brawn ensured that the dotted quaver-semiquaver-quaver pattern in The Old Castle stayed just that, not a slovenly triplet. In the Tuileries pages, he made herculean efforts to keep the treble semiquaver staccato runs detached.  Bydlo began as it should – loud;  nothing as trite as having this big wagon/cart slowly coming into view, then fading to incorporeality over the last bars.  The Unhatched Chickens Ballet came over with fleetness of hand, notable for the accelerando at the end of the first page (and at each of its reappearances).

A similar energizing animated the conclusion to the Limoges Market segment, Brawn making sure of his right-hand chords rather than blurring the bolt into the next picture, Catacombs, which has me still wondering how he achieved the massive left-hand stretch at bar 21.   Kiev’s Great Gate impressed for the slow pace adopted during the last 13 bars – the peroration after the bells and whistles have had their time in the sun.  Even so, this conclusion had some of its thunder stolen by the crotchet triplets section that follows the second chant interlude, here rising to a sonorously impressive clangour during Mussorgsky’s extended bell imitations.

This great example of musical pictorialism takes pride of place in the CD and Brawn presents an involving  reading of its familiar pages, untrammelled by distractions or superficiality.   Listeners would also enjoy the weighty power of Busoni’s take on Bach, as well as a glittering version of Liszt’s diabolic dance.

Posted in CD