Happy half-way point


James Brawn

MSR Classics MS 1468


By a happy concatenation of circumstances (or, more probably, clever organization), the latest in Brawn’s Beethoven piano sonatas CDs is packed with optimism and simple delight in music-making – both from the composer and his interpreter.   On this value-for-money recording, you will find the Sonata No. 9  in E Major,  the slightly later D Major Pastorale, and a clutch of shorter essays in the two-movement No. 24 in F sharp, the Alla tedesca No. 25, and  No. 27 in E minor – one of two with prefatory directions in German.   While a minor-key movement occurs in nearly all five – not the A Therese in F sharp, however – the emotional  content is not particularly gloomy, or even suggestive of depression.   At the end, you may feel that you have come across some movements of ADHD-style Beethoven, but generally the atmosphere remains benign; determined, of course, yet not reaching into dark psychological reserves.

Brawn opens his reading of the Op. 14 E Major Sonata with poise and a controlled excitement that he lets erupt sporadically, notably at the recapitulation with its celebratory left hand semiquaver scales.   For all that, the work impresses best in the concluding passages of each half, the melody in minims singing over murmuring quaver chords in the bass.   A placid equanimity permeates he E minor Allegretto that follows, a plain-speaking premonition of the opening movement to the Sonata No. 27; while the concluding Rondo is briskly handled with an infectious energy surrounding the initial left-hand triplets and the extended central E minor episode.

Taking the tour with Brawn re-opens the wider Beethoven vista, especially when you are looking with a vision concentrated on works of a kind, like these sonatas.   During the opening segment of the D Major Op. 28, the most striking factor is the composer’s reservation of practically his entire development for the three add-on bars to his first subject’s opening sentence.   This creative focus and its attendant flexibility receives steady handling and the moderate waltz tempo is sustained.   Only in those right-hand-only bars featuring two triplets and a quintuplet is the delivery unsatisfying; it’s hard to put your finger on the reason but it may be that each individual beat needs more emphasis.

With the Maelzel-type metronomic tick-tocks in the bass, the sonata’s D minor Andante has a serious facade only and Brawn approaches it with an appreciation of its jauntiness and patches of frivolity; for example, at the change into the major.   Quite rightly, the Scherzo is given at a rapid speed which slows slightly for the Trio‘s second half, while the occasionally bucolic finale, despite the bracing bursts of double-octave action, sounds at its best in the simplest sections where Brawn’s touch is relaxed and beguiling.

Despite the signs of stress in the F sharp Major work, like the admonitory left hand trills in bars 26 and 85 and the intense working-over of a simple motif from bars 45 to 50, the interpretation captures you through its fluent Schubertian lilt at the start and those melting postludial observations at bars 27 to 30, then further on at bars 86 to 89: deftly shaped and touchingly diffident in character.  The sonata’s complementary vivace proves to be a model of sensibility – not over-fast, lots of clarity in the sets of two semiquavers in alternating hands, and a clever, slight easing of the pace before the cell motive’s several returns.   As well, Brawn reaches a marvellous purple patch from bar 149 on the last page; the dynamic juxtapositions and contrast in timbres between treble and bass makes you raise your eyes from the score.   I’m still trying to work out how he achieves a striking and highly individual muffled effect in bar 152.

Certain piano pieces take on a personal colour for many of us according to when and how we studied them.   My instructor at the Sydney Con, Nancy Salas, with a sadly misjudged estimation of her recalcitrant charge’s abilities, gave me the Alla tedesca Sonata to work on – as well as the Bach Italian Concerto, Mozart’s K. 459 Concerto, the Andantino from Schumann’s middle sonata, and several other works over our two-year relationship – masterpieces that over-taxed this mid-adolescent’s limited abilities.   What a pleasure, now, to come on a compelling reading of the Beethoven work which, as far as possible, I’ve avoided since those years.   Brawn treats the opening Presto cleverly, not forgetting that Beethoven wanted something of a tub-thumping country-dance feel about these pages.   More pointedly, the pianist refrains from turning the movement into a moto perpetuo with some infinitesimal ritardandi before launching into the cuckoo-imitating cross-hand sections that dominate the middle pages’ action.   It’s all very brisk but warm in temperament – and, more significantly to my envious appreciation, flawlessly articulated.

I used to think that the remaining movements of this work were child’s play compared to its opening and the Andante in siciliana mode is devoid of technical problems.   But the final Vivace has its moments, as well as a running test pattern of rhythmic shifts, which Brawn negotiates with unflappable control at a very fast pace.   You are hard pressed to find any seams in the breaks between sections, mainly because the performer somehow knits the movement into one fabric by subtle note-sustaining and a non-aggressive palette of attack.  This sonata as a whole presents one of the outstanding exhibitions of sheer craft in the series so far.

The disc’s solitary grim pages come at the start of the E minor Sonata No. 27, pages that have a sort of galumphing stodginess to them.   Like the preceding G Major exercise, the technical requirements are far from shattering but agility and interpretative breadth put the executant under the pump.   Brawn is elastic with his beat in some passages, although rarely those where the forward motion is in chord steps.   He introduces an unexpected accelerando at bar 92 that dissipates before the section closes pianissimo – a little touch of sturmisch bewegt breaking up the steady first-beat emphasis that permeates the movement.   Finally comes a plain-speaking account of the Nicht zu geschwind movement where Beethoven seemingly can’t hear enough of his own main theme, a simple but multi-faceted marvel of construction.   In this very persuasive reading, the pages murmur past although Brawn proves insistent with his loud/soft/sforzando jumps between bars 32 and 38.   But his command of texture reaches a high mark at those discordant spots where the composer sets up an accompanying pattern of contrary-motion 2nds: bars 47 and later at bar 187.   In handling each of these points, Brawn maintains a gentle burble under the top line’s melodic stream, yet again showing a sensitivity to texture and intention that makes one look forward even more to the next product in this excellent series.

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