Last sonatas but not the last word


James Brawn

MSR Classics MS1471

Carrying us onward towards the conclusion of his complete Beethoven piano sonatas cycle, James Brawn has grouped the final three works in the series under one roof. It’s a bold move, presenting the major intellectual challenges before taking on an imposing technical mammoth: the Sonata No. 29 in B flat, Hammerklavier. While this last-mentioned is the preserve of master-pianists (although I’ve heard a few readings that disappointed greatly, including one where the performer simply left the stage mid-slow movement), each of the final three sonatas features commonly in recital programs these days – much more than half a century ago when they were avoided in favour of more agreeable works with appealing nicknames.

The favourites linger, of course, Pathetiqueing, Moonlighting and Waldsteining their ways across recital programs until their appearance induces frissons of ennui: you know that nothing informative will be achieved across the duration of yet another Tempest or Appassionata but, like Christians the world over, you wait in hope (usually disappointed). With the last three sonatas, you can expect more fine gradations of interpretation. It’s not that they are more difficult to get around than their predecessors, although certain movements are risky – the Prestissimo from No. 30 in E Major, the I’ve-been-everywhere fugue that concludes the A flat Op.110, and the multi-layered Allegro of Sonata No. 32’s first movement.

Brawn’s reading of Op. 109, the E Major Sonata, is blessed with a well-matched pair of opening movements before the disproportionately long theme-and-variations conclusion. For the opening Vivace/Adagio, he finds an appealing give-and-take set of speeds which don’t over-egg the changes from the initial two-note motif-chains to mini-cadenzas (bars 9 and 58), passages that often enjoy a piacevole treatment rather than the disciplined observation of underlying pulses that obtains here; why the hell would Beethoven have bothered with those explicit groupings of demi-semiquavers and hemi-demi-semiquavers unless he wanted pianists to exercise a relative tempo ratio? Brawn’s care for detail shows out in minutiae like his handling of the last crotchet’s worth of bar 12’s right hand, and the elision of those wafer-thin joins between segments (bars 9, 15, 57 and 65).

The following very fast movement also shines for its sensible treatment, the pauses slight and used to mark a differentiation of attack rather than employed for the usual excuse of repositioning a hand. Brawn makes full use of the expression markings (well, those in Wallner’s edition for Henle), with a few clever dynamic pulling-back instants that serve to keep the onward rush buoyant. And here was one of the more fluent transfers of attention from right hand to left at bar 112; it only lasts a few seconds but it’s become one of my discriminant points for determining a player’s dynamic balance and care in avoiding bluster.

For the sonata’s largest span, the third movement theme and six variations, Brawn shows the requisite alternation between ultra-sensitivity, as in the hiatus breaths he employs during the melody’s first articulation’s phrases, and helter-skelter jollity (Variation 3) alongside an Handelian determined simplicity during Variation 5’s fugal mesh. The executant shows commendable care with the second variation’s juxtaposition of detached semiquaver two-note motives and the broad chordal thematic treatments (bars 41 and 57). A more relaxed approach typified Brawn’s handling of the Etwas langsamer variation which enjoyed a quietly splayed outlining; not enough to undercut the prevailing metre but sufficient to suggest a surging barcarolle.

For all that, you have to relish this pianist’s bringing the sonata home in the final variation where the sustained trills on B (with a brief excursion to home-key E) generate an underpinning that threatens to overpower the material being outlined both above (mainly) and below. With a further example of that insight shown across this odyssey, Brawn observes a dynamic level that doesn’t distract from the composer’s strands of operation; you find no heavy pounding of those arpeggio/broken chord chains that reveal a simple, devastating musical deconstruction before the theme returns en clair, bringing us round to full term.

I’m not so taken with the first movement of Op. 110 in A flat Major. Admittedly, Beethoven’s writing is fitful, putting a sonata-form shape through several odd wriggles and engineering sudden changes in tonality. Brawn underlines these oddities and abrupt shifts by pointing them up (or out) with brief pauses, so that the movement advances as a set of episodes rather than as wholly-woven fabric. I suppose it’s a fundamental problem of interpretation – how do you treat a chameleonic canvas? – but my view comes down on the side of playing the pages without any tangential commentary on the not-so-subtle shifts in register alongside the traditional modulatory brusqueries.

Not much to find fault with in the ensuing Allegro molto. Brawn keeps a cool head, especially when faced with the invitation to belt out the forte and sforzando chords. Further he gives the central D flat Major trio some lucidity by not accelerating or moving into a slushy over-use of the sustaining pedal. Still, this page-and-a-bit is hard to integrate in any sense; you can’t call it aimless because it has direction (mainly down, from a fair height) but any congruence with the surroundings escapes me. Of course, I could go to that bank of scholars and hanger-on pedants who make theses and careers out of explaining these ‘problem’ sonatas but life’s too short; well, it’s getting that way in this quarter, what with the endless struggle against infections both physical and mental, particularly now that we have returned to normal after the Australian Open has limped to its flaccid conclusion.

You can find more justification for Brawn’s pointing-up character in the tragic-heroic last movement of this work where arioso, recitative and fugue are assembled in a carefully staged scenario of lament and ebullience. The pianist is very painstaking with his left-hand chords and their shadings into one another right across the Adagio ma non troppo when it really starts (half-way through bar 7). Further, his outline of the Klagender Gesang itself proves to be irreproachably clear and poised, With the fuga‘s first part, this reading preserves a contrapuntal clarity and control that obtains up to and throughout the reinforced bass explosions at bars 45, 72 and especially 101. Brawn also manages to suggest the rests between those enigmatic semiquaver chords from bar 131 to 134 while still following the sustained pedal direction.

For the fuga‘s inversion and complexities, this interpretation takes the high road by treating the score with respect, ensuring clarity even as the argument becomes more determined at the change of key in bar 153. Further, in the final pages where the material is reduced to an alternating bipolarity and Beethoven stretches further and further outward to the topmost and most bass-ic limits of his instrument, Brawn observes the decencies, articulating with weight but without bombast or hysterics. Which gives us a reading informed by warmth and integrity, one where I can’t find any note or gesture out of place.

Last of all comes the C minor Op. 111: a minefield, they say. It’s not technically over-remarkable but its first movement offers too many opportunities for pontification before and after bar 19 where the Allegro kicks off properly. Brawn is awake to the inbuilt drama of the scene-setting seventh chords at the opening and the unsettling hiatus chords between bars 6 and 10 where expectations of regularity are roused and left unsatisfied. He is quite happy to indulge in a considerable hold-back whenever he comes across a poco ritenente in the main dramatic chapter, while some hard-pressing passages come within cooee of dragging, e.g. bars 37 to 42. Then there emerge some fine sweeps of impassioned confidence; for example, the crescendo at bar 96 leading to a marvellously contrived piece of contrapuntal display, rich in octaves from both hands until the escorting semiquavers take over at the end of bar 108.

Another effective interpretative illustration comes in the final bars. After a chain of eight sforzandi and a vehement tonic affirmation, the subsequent chords become epuise, until the menacing semiquaver runs emerge in the bass while the right hand consoles with three resolutions into a tierce de Picardie – a passage that brings to most minds the penultimate relaxation (8 bars from the end) in Chopin’s final Op. 10 etude.

Yet again, I’m impressed by Brawn’s intellectual control, specifically in the second movement Arietta with variations. His initial pace is spacious, and you can hear every element of the chord work, no matter how raw the texture. Each variation is welded into a framework that relies on its foundation rivets, no matter how discursive or florid the embellishments. I’ve listened to these pages several times, making sure that Brawn gives exact measure in the syncopations and displacements of the later variations when tied chords or notes ask for intense concentration from an executant; or further on when both hands operate in the bass clef (bars 65 to 71, 81 to 88) and those left-hand groups of nine demi-semiquavers hare murmur clearly; or closer to the end when Beethoven brings in his trills, which are delivered in this context with unstudied regularity.

The CD is an excellent sample of Brawn’s powers in Beethoven performance. The three works are treated with a respect and firmness that reveal an intimate awareness of the composer’s demands and a fidelity to the works’ aesthetic compass – true to the drama, the gravity, the incredibly powerful impetus underpinning what can look on paper like ambling. This isn’t Brawn’s final odyssey leg – there are two more discs to come – but it’s a considerable and bracing contribution to the journey.

Posted in CD