High spirits and optimism in major keys


James Brawn

MSR Classics 1472

Here is the penultimate leg in this long voyage, Brawn has only two more works to release and the complete argosy comes home to Ithaca. For this CD, he has allocated four of the lesser-known elements in Beethoven’s output of 32 works, although each of them holds a world entire, even the F Major two-movement gem. It’s been a long time since I heard any of these in live performance; they’re usually the preserve of aspirants, as the big guns in the field go in search of more fleshy game. But each adds another facet or thirteen to this pianist’s insightful chain of interpretations.

None more so than the four-movement Sonata No. 13 in E flat Major, a quasi una fantasia companion to the more celebrated Moonlight Sonata No. 14. This particular work asks for an attaca between each segment, underlining the composer’s use of building-block inter-relationships, not to mention his looking backwards to the content of former pages, particularly obvious in the sonata rondo finale. Brawn opens his initial rondo with amiable expansiveness, giving full weight to those intrusive left-hand sforzandi at bars 6 and 7, then gently plucking out of the ether the C Major chords that surprise in the best Beethovenian style at bar 9, eventually attacking the central allegro with enthusiasm before taking us back to the four-square main theme and its gradual dissipation into three quiet bars of the home key.

It is hard to fault the following Allegro molto, either. This repeat-rich proto-scherzo enjoys an easy exposition, even when the arpeggios stop, and the syncopated version of the opening pages is persuasive if the whole passage is a tad blurred until the climax arrives at bar 132 where the off-the-beat right hand rings clear to the second-last bar. As in some previous sonatas, Brawn is free with his mini-pauses and phrase-pointing across the short Adagio, taking the rider con espressione with some interpretative amplitude, mainly in pausing before a bar’s first downbeat. Such an approach gives these 26 bars plenty of breathing space, if achieved at the expense of melodic fluency.

But the vivace finale runs past with an infectious head of steam; even the leaps at places like those between bars 31 to 35 are kept up to the mark and the handy treatment of this movement’s first (prime) subject are happily busy, rather than plodding as hefty semi-inventions. The performer maintains the light-footed humour and optimism by observing a style of attack that emphasizes Beethoven’s delight in movement, so that the episodes that touch on the minor (e.g. bars 131 to 138) come across with energy rather than weight. This is completely assured playing, a sunny conclusion to the sonata and in every way an atmospheric contrast with its opus number companion.

You might find the same in the following G Major Sonata No. 16 with its jaunty off-the-beat initial gambit that carries through the opening Allegro vivace‘s first subject. The exposition here is not all major-inflected, especially towards that section’s conclusion, but the development – as much of it as there is – definitely pursues a chain of minor modulations. Here you can enjoy Brawn’s unfaltering clarity, especially in those stages where the melodic operations transfer to the left hand, or those thinly textured but awkwardly placed pieces of mini-counterpoint (see bars 261-263). And this performer makes as much dynamic contrast as he can with the unexpectedly (or is it?) soft ending to the movement, as later he does in the sonata’s concluding rondo.

More of the contented Beethoven comes in the middle Adagio grazioso, Brawn following a fine vein of the adjective throughout with a clean observance of the left-hand’s initial arpeggio separated notes and allowing himself some metrical latitude at the end of elaborately decorated right-hand work (bars 10 and 12). He is not to be hurried in the two cadenza breaks, accounting for these brief rhythmic oases with quiet, measured placidity. Mind you, the composer is Romantically voluble throughout this Venetian arena, nowhere more so than in the plunging 6ths and 3rds of bar 107, but I admired the subtlety of Brawn’s restrained negotiation of some left-hand 7ths that are present but muffled, most obviously in bars 116 and 117. Small details like these send you back to pick up more occasions of delicate delivery.

The sonata’s conclusion is deceptive as it opens with a neatly balanced primary theme, then moves to play relentlessly with this tune’s opening mordent figure. Indeed, the composer occupies himself with subsidiary material, accompanying triplets and the like, before reviewing his amiable first idea, then moving into more hard three-part labour from bar 87 to bar 98: an instance of modulation working to little purpose. A lengthy period of footling leads to two brief adagio breaks before a presto coda that concerns itself almost exclusively with the afore-mentioned mordent shape. Compared to the preceding movements, this impresses as expanded beyond its dimensions, the working-out full of forward motion but lacking substance. Brawn treats it with an ease that recalls the first movement, following the triplet scale passages and left-hand melody announcements with a sympathetic response to each sequence-laced vagary.

Another four-movement sonata arrives with No. 18 in E flat Major, here distinguished by a musical sobriquet, ‘The Hunt’. This is an opus number companion of the preceding G Major work and shares its buoyancy of outlook, particularly in the even-numbered movements. You get the impression that its first movement is a stop-start operation, mainly because a ritardando is built into the opening gesture (see bars 3 to 6) and its reappearances. But these pages move forward with developmental purpose and the welcome presence – as in all the works on this CD – of whimsicality, here more contained than in its co-opus G Major’s opening allegro. Brawn keeps the pleasures coming smoothly, allowing only the smallest of independent gestures in the two irregular bars (54 and 177) and he negotiates his trills without cramming in extra oscillations (particularly the chain across bars 193 to 201), eventually opting for a piano final cadence.

He gives an individual transparence to the following 2/4 scherzo, one of the more infectiously pell-mell movements in Beethoven’s middle period sonatas. The initial theme and its restatements are not drowned in sustaining pedal melding but come across with excellent clarity. Some of the demi-semiquaver left-hand interjections from bar 42 to bar 49 are not as crisp as you’d like, although most of the later stretch (bars 147 to 154) are close to exemplary. Also, Brawn’s accounting for those abrupt fortissimo chords that punctuate passages of two-hand semiquaver work show a deft hand in supplying an apt dynamic level – just vehement enough not to drown out what follows.

Commentators speak of the Menuetto‘s standing as an unexpected throw-back to Mozart and Haydn – the sonata form’s courtly age. But this example seems integral to the work, standing as an easy break between two rapid-fire bursts of energy. The first third sets up a gentle, controlled environment through a simple series of splendidly interlocking four-bar phrases, before the gentle surprise of the Trio’s mildly vaulting chords, before the Menuetto‘s return and that touching calando conclusion. The whole is treated with clear sympathy and responsiveness: a model lesson in giving unassuming pages their proper respect.

As for the ‘hunt’ finale, Brawn maintains his presto pace convincingly, with just a hint of awkwardness in an odd spot like the left hand work in bars 135 to 138, and later, the preparatory pause before those 10-note chords at bars 307 and 317. But you find plenty of examples of exemplary skill, like the first over-the-hills-and-far-away burst from bar 64 to the end of the exposition, the relieving settle onto C Major at bar 120, and the ease of the crossed-hands single notes and main-motif statements between bars 280 and 299. This is a sustained example of rapid-fire playing but – as I’ve said before – articulated with admirable clarity and almost-unflagging impetus.

To end, Brawn gives us the shortest work on this CD in the F Major Sonata Op. 54. Compared to its predecessors on this CD, this score is decidedly odd. While the first movement opens easily enough, it soon (bar 24) takes a turn away from a slightly dour menuetto into aggressive contrary motion octaves in triplets for each hand; the two elements contrast and sort-of combine before the end. What presents as disparate in the first pages becomes more rational after the repetitions, yet the contrast is not really fused. I liked Brawn’s subtle force applied in the triplet-dominated pages, alongside a clipped approach to the opening material’s dotted-quaver-semiquaver repeated pattern. As across all four of these sonatas, you can rely on this pianist to give full measure to each note’s rhythmic value, even when the part-writing verges on the complex; everything is in its place and subsidiary elements are given as much care as dominant melodic lines.

Finishing this disc is a driving interpretation of the sonata’s Allegretto which many a pianist manages to turn into burbling. Not so here where the ceaseless semiquavers lead into a development of considerable tension across bars 23 to 99 – the movement’s core. Brawn keeps a cool head throughout the multiple modulations that Beethoven works on his one theme and carries us happily into a celebratory coda that keeps its head, despite a momentary indication of acceleration. An ending that borders on the over-wrought, if not as jubilant or as ferocious as the finales to its catalogue companions (the C Major Waldstein and the F minor Appassionata).

So what are we waiting for? Two late sonatas round out Brawn’s enterprise: the A Major Op. 101 and the B flat Major Hammerklavier Op. 106 – the first two in that late period sequence of five incomparable masterworks, setting the benchmark for Romantic (and beyond) pianism. It’s a consummation devoutly to be wished.

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