Joyful stop-over on this long trip

A BEETHOVEN ODYSSEY VOLUME

James Brawn

MSR Classics MSR1470

Brawn 6

Expatriate pianist Brawn is still in Shanghai during the COVID-19 pandemic but has managed to put out another volume in his series of the complete Beethoven sonatas. Following this one, there are 9 works left to be recorded, well under a third of the total. Here he is fleshing out the earlier numbers in the catalogue with No. 4 in E flat Major, No. 11 in B flat Major and No. 12 in A flat Major; so he has completed all on the master-sheet from No. 1 to No. 12. After this, the pianist has a fair task in seeing out Nos. 13, 16, 18 and 22 as well as the colossal final bracket from Sonata 28 to the ne plus ultra Op. 111.

This CD is a noticeably sunny collection, apart from the grim Eroica practice piece in the A flat work, and even that slow-moving threnody manages to sound jubilant in places. Brawn has a firm grasp of the excited undercurrent that lies at the base of the opening Allegro of the E flat Sonata Op. 7. Actually, there’s nothing ‘under’ about it: the movement begins with a dominating atmosphere of fervent anticipation and energetic impetus. The only questionable point comes at the syncopations across bars 127 to 132 which sound rushed to me; but when Beethoven gets around to treating this figure between bar 153 and bar 168 at the start of the movement’s development phase, the displacement is impeccable, as are the reappearances at bars 397-312, and finally from bar 339 to bar 348.

Acoss these pages, you can hear plenty of felicities, like the rapid mordents in bars 109 to 110, and later from bar 209 to bar 211 – both handled with the lightest of touches; or those right-hand quaver-crotchet 13th leaps that add an off-beat buoyancy to the work’s forward motion, each time treated with agile confidence. Yet the outstanding quality to this reading is its realization of the composer’s unstoppable enthusiasm which begins as a single-note regular pulse and reaches out to us with irresistible sprays of ebullience.

The following Largo finds Brawn in excellent form, negotiating the 9th and 10th stretches with finesse and unafraid to take Beethoven’s direction as a licence to linger over block chords and accelerate slightly in bridging passages, as across bars 47 to 50 leading back to the main theme’s re-statement; and space out an elaboration, as in bar 62 which can all too often turn into a gabble. Only a few questions hovered around the ensuing Allegro and Minore both of which enjoy firm treatment throughout, especially the latter segment’s Erlking-redolent pages. The rests across bars 14 and 15 seemed short-changed, and the distinction between forte and fortissimo in the Allegro’s later pages (if, in fact, the performer was looking for one) was not particularly wide.

You couldn’t say that Beethoven had kept his best till last but the final Rondo is more surprising than this sonata’s preceding movements. starting with that benign falling melody with its unsettling dominant pedal underpinning. Brawn treats the grazioso elements kindly enough but gives the long minor episode – bars 63 to 93 – with powerful determination. You can also find small touches, such as the briefest of hesitations at crossover points, although the major one – at bar 155 with the enharmonic shift to E major for a little while – is treated quietly, flowing gently out of the preceding fermata minim chord.

The performer can’t help Beethoven’s fiddly stretches from sounding stuck-on; cf. the trills beginning at bar 36, or the chromatic octave syncopation from bar 146. But even these are produced without emphasis – they’re made to be part of the energetic drive that impels this long work to its moving, evanescent conclusion.

With the variations that open the A flat Major Sonata Op. 26, Brawn is very exact in articulation, the left hand clear with each chord constituent present and contributing. He sets a sensible pace at each of the five changes and keeps to it, although you can’t get much by way of alterations here as the movement is meant to be conceived and executed as a metrical constant, rather than a series of rhythmically differentiated vignettes. Here also you are met with a fine melody with the slightest touch of melancholy about it in the second phrase and a Lebewohl quality to the coda.

You’re faced with a weighty version of the Scherzo, if not the Trio, that follows. Brawn gets as much punch as he can out of every sforzando, but he might have pulled back on them in bars 26 to 28 in favour of a smoother negotiation of the right-hand groups of consecutive thirds which here sound studied. Then comes the Marcia funebre in A flat minor, keeping things in the tonic family. Here again, you will find much to appreciate, particularly the straight-down-the-line treatment of the long-winded theme where the internal movement emerges as a matter of course, rather than being given special weighting. Brawn gives great power to the middle 8 bars of major key salutes – a precursor of Berlioz’s drawn-sword excesses.

It takes a few hearings for Brawn’s account of the Allegro finale to reveal its breadth of delivery, but in the end it makes a splendidly cogent resolution to the entire work. Right from the opening, you are captured by the movement’s inbuilt energy, in part due to the pianist’s constant rise and fall in dynamic level and a careful weaving of phrases into each other, which is the keynote of this rondo’s A sections. Further, to pick out just one detail, you can see/tell what’s coming but the lead-back following the C minor episode is exactly right – from bar 96 up to the quiet fusion at bar 100: simple to play, here felicitously shaped. And that last observation pretty well sums up my reaction to these specific four tracks.

For his last offering, Brawn skips one back to the Sonata No. 11 in B flat, which is my favourite on this CD – both for the work’s qualities and for the broad optimism of its realization. I’m always bowled over by the bubbling anticipation that leads to the appearance of the first theme at bar 4, then the sheer wealth of material that spreads across the following pages. Later, Brawn draws a broad brush at that chain of modulations in the development stretching from bar 91 to bar 103; it’s not the most original sequence but you find a reassuring inevitability in the performer’s sensible pragmatism.

As far as I can make out, Brawn is punctilious about his semiquavers in both hands, delivering them faithfully and without muffling any patterns. No, it shouldn’t matter that he gets the notes out exactly but the task is accomplished without unnecessary harshness or suggestions of automatism. A similar quality is invested in the second movement Adagio with its chains of repeated quaver triads, which Brawn articulates with sensitivity and no signs of negotiating a functional accompaniment. My only question about this grave, satisfying interpretation is the use of slight pauses at the end of certain bars before a change of dynamic, e.g. bars 39, 44 and 45, with a hint at bar 51. But then, if you go looking, you can hear, from the first page on, slight hesitations and plain rubato all over the place, which latter is usually applied carefully, particularly to the left hand. And it all comes under the movement’s supplementary head-text: con molta espressione.

You are hard pressed to find fault with Brawn’s version of the Minuetto and Minore trio. He observes the restrained grace of the first eight bars before Beethoven shifts his train of thought to aggression in the Minuetto‘s second half and those aggressive running semiquaver clusters coupled with cadential emphatic chords; here, the interruption passes without attracting too many questions. And the left-hand study at the Minore emphasises the cursive line without hitting any pre-Pathetique button.

The Allegretto rondo that finishes this sonata is a chameleonic set of pages, beginning with a main theme that proposes Mozart in its first half, then veers into unexpected territory; not really a continuation of or balance to the first four bars but a semi-completion nonetheless. Brawn keeps a steady hand on each incident until unleashing a bit of temperament during the four bars leading up to the change to F minor semi-furibondo interlude. Later, he carries off a splendid shift of pace for the triplets that permeate the main theme’s final reappraisal.

Here is well-achieved and judicious playing, an impressive reading of this mellifluous sonata and one that reads each of the four movements with conviction and persuasiveness. Not that this CD comprises ‘easy’ works since each challenges a pianist’s self-restraint and sustained insight. But there’s a vast constellation to come in Brawn’s future recordings for this series – a welcome and worthwhile re-investigation of works that serve as the fundamental for Western piano music literature.

Posted in CD