Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
A Beethoven Odyssey – Volume 7
Piano Sonata No. 30, in E major, Op. 109 (1820)
Piano Sonata No. 31, in A-flat major, Op. 110 (1821-22)
Piano Sonata No. 32, in C minor, Op. 111 (1821-22)
James Brawn (Piano)
rec. 2022 at Potton Hall, Suffolk, UK
MSR CLASSICS MS1471 
Finally James Brawn’s Beethoven Odyssey resumes with this, Volume 7 in the series. The pandemic stalled the project for three years, but now with this release, sonatas 13, 16, 18, 22, 28 and 29 remain to complete the cycle, which should require two more discs. When I reviewed Brawn’s last volume here (review) which featured Nos. 4, 11 and 12, I wrote, “If there is one outstanding aspect about Brawn’s interpretive acumen that I have noticed previously, it is his nearly unerring sense to capture the essence of the varied and often shifting moods in Beethoven’s sonatas.” Indeed, that quality is clearly in evidence in these new performances too, as expected. I had also noted in past reviews of entries in this series that Brawn’s tempos were well chosen and judicious, falling pretty much in the consensus range.
Here, however, the finales in each of these three sonatas tend toward the expansive side, as Brawn probes for a deeper expressive approach. In this respect he differs from many other pianists who have traversed these sonatas, including Vladimir Ashkenazy, Alfred Brendel, Rudolf Buchbinder, François-Frédéric Guy, Michael Korstick, and Igor Levit, to name but a handful.
Take for example Sonata No. 32. After a thoroughly dramatic and incisively played first movement (Maestoso—Allegro con brio), where dynamics, tempos and all else seem perfectly suited to the music, Brawn begins the finale (Arietta [Adagio molto semplice]) very slowly, with a sort of graceful solemnity, almost as if the music depicts a religious procession of great significance. Gradually the music gains momentum through the first two variations so that when the “ragtime” third is played it comes on with plenty of energy and spirit. The serenity of the final two variations lifts us into an ethereal world and here Brawn captures to the core the essence of the music with his imaginative phrasing, especially in his subtle use of dynamics. When the main theme is finally heard again Brawn plays it in a more muscular manner than is usual. Thus the contrast that follows in the transformative closing pages comes on with a greater sense of celestial resolution. This may well be one of the more different recorded performances of this movement—and sonata, for that matter—and it is fully convincing.
Sonata No. 30 gets a fine performance as well. Brawn phrases the opening of the brief first movement (Vivace, ma non troppo) quite subtly, with a little hesitation after the first note as if the music is tentatively finding its way in the fresh, bright world that follows. And this “bright world” has plenty of sunshine and infectious spirit in Brawn’s hands. The ensuing, even shorter, movement (Prestissimo) has just the right measure of vigor and nervous energy to set the stage for the mostly serene Andante molto cantabile finale. As previously mentioned Brawn’s tempo choices tend slightly toward the expansive side here, and again that works just fine. He subtly conveys the sense of both repose and profundity in the stately main theme with his sensitive dynamics and incisive accenting. Each of the six variations is rendered with intelligence and imagination, and it would be difficult to quibble over Brawn’s handling of any one of them. True, his dynamics tend toward the meaty side, but they fit the pianist’s conception of the music brilliantly. A fine performance.
No. 31 is no less convincing. The opening theme begins slowly, almost solemnly before it brightens as Brawn deftly transitions to a livelier tempo, rendering Beethoven’s rich procession of themes and ideas with a keen sense for pointing up its changing rhythms and mood shifts. Marked Moderato cantabile, there is more thematic and motivic material in this six to seven minute movement than in many longer Beethoven sonata movements, but Brawn misses nothing as he clarifies textures and extracts every ounce of drama and beauty. The brief Allegro molto second movement, like its counterpart in No. 30, comes on with plenty of vigor and nervous drive. Brawn takes the opening of the Adagio ma non troppo finale quite slowly, effectively conveying a gloomy, funereal sort of atmosphere. The brilliant fugue (Allegro ma non troppo) sounds appropriately grand here, as Brawn’s sinewy dynamics and subtle phrasing yield a profoundly all-conquering sense as the music seems to rise to heavenly climes, especially in the majestic ending.
Jeremy Hayes’ album notes are very informative and the sound reproduction throughout each work is excellent. Speaking of sound, I find Brawn’s Hamburg Steinway D a most splendid choice for these sonatas. Needless to say, there is a plethora of competition in this repertory on record, including from the pianists mentioned above, as well as countless others. I’ll say this about Brawn in his nearly complete cycle: he has consistently presented vital, often highly imaginative and sometimes startlingly individual accounts of these great works. Here, he turns out thoroughly impressive accounts of these last three very challenging sonatas. Highly recommended!
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