On Calypso’s island


James Brawn

MSR Classics  MS 1467


For the third disc in his Beethoven sonatas cycle, James Brawn has picked out three works across a (roughly) 14-year span of production.  He starts with the consistently even-tempered, happy No. 2 in A Major, hurtles forward to No.. 17 –  the D minor Tempest of 1802  –  and finishes on the cusp of the second-to-third period interchange with the exultant  Les Adieux No. 26 in E flat.   With  this recording, Brawn moves closer to the half-way mark of his journey and the rewards from accompanying him, or just going along for the ride, keep on coming.

He finds a satisfying vein of restrained jocularity in the A Major work; not piling on the humour but giving a pleasurable heft to the staccato chords that recur in this sonata’s opening.   As expected, he keeps the texture clear, right from the opening pages’ semiquaver triplets alternating between the hands.   Even better proof of the player’s executive lucidity emerges whenever he has to negotiate a quick mordent or three, and the stretch of development past the first double bar is impressive in its transparent delivery – both times, since Brawn observes the second-half repeat.

Again, in the Largo‘s opening sentence, Brawn strikes a persuasive emotional level with his shaping of the near-static melody over that strangely moving pizzicato bass – Beethoven as a young man showing his capacity for inexorability with consolation.  The pianist’s innate polish of delivery shines out in the finely-judged trills of bars 9-11.  On the repeat, you get to take in the amiable charm infused into the extended melody line and the unflustered character of the movement’s ornamentation.   But with Brawn, detail is vital and makes a large element in the satisfaction of his performing style; each movement has some luminous instance, like the excellent accuracy of his pacing in the last six-bars where the slurred right-hand motive balances the left-hand’s combination of slurred and detached notes, leading to a moving subsidence in the final notes.

For the Scherzo, Brawn takes a level-headed look at the many staccato/accent markings, implying that, if Beethoven puts a dot over a crotchet, he doesn’t want the note under-valued but negotiated in such a way as to form part of the central motif.  There’s no lack of crispness as the message passes across treble and bass registers.  With the Rondo, the performer takes the Grazioso direction literally, employing as much room as he needs to make an elegant statement of the main theme’s arpeggiated upward sweep in all its disparate rhythmic transformations.  And you feel no need to have emphasized the second bar’s semiquaver rest after the leap of a 12th downwards: it’s a breath, not a separation mark.  When the key signature changes to accommodate A minor, Brawn moves into more declamatory, punchy territory, so that the eventual move back gains by contrast in this movement’s gradual unfolding.

Speaking of contrast, in this CD’s reading of the D minor Sonata,  those famous opening Largo bars are given dead slow – which makes the move to Allegro all the more invigorating.   Here also, the use of staccato is carefully positioned in a relentlessly driving urgency that prevails until the slightest of rallentandi at the end of the exposition.   The atmosphere moves into the spacious for the arpeggio-rich passage that follows the double bar and the progress becomes tightly-argued until the Largo returns, capped with two small recitatives that impress for their pianissimo understatement.  And Brawn is to be praised for his control of touch in the dynamic deceleration to silence during the movement’s uncompromising conclusion.

Another detail among many, it was hard to ignore the demi-semiquaver triplet/quaver rhythmic motto during the Adagio, mainly because you heard no smudging, the tattoo making its presence felt with telling regularity each time.   Brawn gave these pages the correct tension with his effectively administered crescendi cutting abruptly back to piano, a kind of emotional delaying tactic until the last six bars, here played at a slower tempo as Beethoven gives a final chaste valediction.  In the Gretchen-at-the-Spinning-Wheel Allegretto finale, the pianist treats each repetition of the main four-note figure as part of a sentence-length contributing to a composite, rather than as a series of perky individual blobs.  The effect makes this reading more legato than most, the interpreter trusting in the expression markings, particularly crisp sforzandi, to provide dramatic character, as in the passage leading back to the rondo tune after the post-exposition chromatic shenanigans.  Brawn is his own man here in what he chooses to link up and what he isolates; yet the spinning-wheel is unfaltering, right up to the final bars’ fade to black.

With the Les Adieux program piece, the shortest sonata on this disc, we come closer to the taxing masterpieces at the end of Beethoven’s piano sonata achievement.  The initial Lebewohl  is taken slowly, reinforcing Brawn’s consistent reaction to tempo and mood directions; the Allegro that follows proves brisk but not as much as its counterpart in the preceding sonata’s first movement.   The leave-taking nervousness comes through pretty consistently despite some cluttered chordal writing.   During the busy wide arpeggios in the left-hand, a few notes are ‘dropped’ or fail to register fully.

Luckily, Brawn stays the right side of Chopinesque melancholy in the Abwesenheit, abstaining from going maudlin at the Archduke Rudolph’s absence which this interlude memorialises.   Still, a more pliable outlining of the movement’s rise and fall might have given the pages more humanity; for example, the right hand solos at bars 13-14 and later at bars 28-30 which come across as too self-regarding and prim.  To compensate, Brawn promises suspense with a cleverly arranged breath-holding in the change-over bars.  The Wiedersehen movement captures an admirable vein of delight-in-action, dodging any hint of hysterical relief at the money being back in town.   Brawn eases the tension – or Beethoven’s insistence – with a deft pause or rallentando at various points; for instance, in the stretch between bars 130 and 140.   But he gives the movement’s interior linear mobility its due, right up to the pause for reflection at bar 218’s Poco andante  –  which is actually a bit more than poco as the pace is pulled back considerably more than you’d anticipate.   Still, it gives the segment’s tolling thirds and sixths time to reinforce the quietly celebratory underpinning of this interlude before the exhilarating conclusion.

In the next disc of this series, Brawn performs five sonatas – No. 9 in E Major, the Pastorale No. 15, No. 24 A Therese, the alla tedesca No. 25, and the two-movement No. 27.   This current CD whets the appetite considerably because of the continuously fresh approach and emotional breadth of Brawn’s interpretations.