LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770 – 1827): A Beethoven Odyssey, Volume 5 – Piano Sonatas Nos. 5, 6, 7, and 10—James Brawn, piano [Recorded at Potton Hall, Suffolk, UK, 20 – 22 April 2017; MSR Classics MS 1469; 1 CD, 71:12; Available from MSR Classics, Amazon (USA), and major music retailers]
The trouble with the axioms that people often spout as substitutes for original thoughts is that they have an annoying habit of being true. Though so obvious as to seem ridiculous, it cannot be denied that every journey, great or small, begins with a single step—and not necessarily with a step in the right direction. Whether one’s destination is a physical location, a state of being, or a tangible accomplishment, progress is achieved by continually placing one foot ahead of the other, sometimes literally and sometimes figuratively. The distances from the piano in one’s childhood home to the stages of the world’s great concert halls can only superficially be measured in meters or miles. What cannot be quantified is the distance traversed in a musician’s artistic development, a continual voyage in which the only finite destination is failure. To succeed is to keep moving even when at rest: Art arises when the ordinary acquiesces to stasis.
One of the most remarkable journeys in Western Music began in 1796 with the publication of Beethoven’s Opus 2 Piano Sonatas. In the three decades of life that remained to him after the introduction of these first three sonatas, Beethoven advanced music for solo piano from the progressive but quintessentially Classical forms inherited from Haydn and Mozart to the fully-fledged Romanticism of Schumann, Liszt, and Brahms. In the interim between the introduction of the Opus 2 Sonatas and his completion in 1822 of his thirty-second and final Sonata, the incredible Opus 111 Sonata in C minor, Beethoven altered the mechanics of writing for the piano in a manner that necessitated pianists’ reinvention of playing techniques. The intricacies of Haydn’s and Mozart’s works for piano were products of the polite drawing rooms of the Habsburg empire, but, as his career progressed, the focus of Beethoven’s composition of sonatas for piano migrated from aristocratic milieux to public concert halls. Not even in his nine symphonies did Beethoven traverse as much stylistic territory as in the Piano Sonatas, which collectively constitute a body of work for keyboard as significant as Bach’s Wohltemperirte Clavier.
In the eight decades since Artur Schnabel first recorded a complete cycle, many pianists have documented their individual interpretations—or lack thereof—of the Beethoven Sonatas in live and studio recordings. Among these recordings are instances of uninflected playing, innumerable idiosyncrasies, and occasional intersections of technical prowess and interpretive insight. Notable in the company of discs of special merit are the first five volumes of MSR Classics’ A Beethoven Odyssey, of which this fifth volume is the latest—and in some ways the finest—installment. To state that this disc is superior to its four brethren is akin to saying that For Whom the Bell Tolls is a finer book than either Death in the Afternoon or The Sun Also Rises: preferring one does not diminish the value of the others. Played on a warm-toned Steinway instrument, the performances on this disc of four of Beethoven’s most experimental Piano Sonatas are superbly-executed steps that propel the listener along a legitimately Homeric journey. A Beethoven Odyssey shares with Schnabel’s 1930s recordings an unerring sensibility for recognizing each Sonata’s individual qualities and its unique contributions to the development of Beethoven’s pianistic artistry. Whether approached as the continuation of a wonderful series or as a stand-alone recording of a fascinating quartet of Beethoven’s early Piano Sonatas, Volume Five of A Beethoven Odyssey leads the listener on a marvelously fulfilling voyage of discovery.
The personal odyssey of James Brawn began in England and has taken him to performance venues throughout the world via Australia and New Zealand. His direct connections with Claudio Arrau, Solomon Cutner, and Rudolf Serkin are audible in the fluidity of his playing of Beethoven’s music on this disc, his articulations of rapid passagework recalling Serkin’s nimble-wristed playing. It is to be hoped that any pianist who enjoys opportunities to record Beethoven sonatas in studio is capable of executing the scores with technical proficiency, but acumen of the level exhibited by Brawn cannot be taken for granted. Nevertheless, it is not mastery of the keys that captures the imagination in the performances on this disc. Only in his mid-forties, Brawn wields an interpretive maturity of which many pianists cannot boast even at the ends of their careers. A musician can learn how to meaningfully dissect and reassemble a piece, but the musical intuition that shaped Schnabel’s interpretations of Beethoven sonatas cannot be taught. Brawn plays the Sonatas on this disc from within: before his fingers press the keys, the music already flows inside of him. Each Sonata is therefore an excerpt from a larger narrative in progress, presented by Brawn with context drawn from rather than imposed upon Beethoven’s music.
The three Sonatas of Beethoven’s Opus 10 were composed between 1796 and 1798, a volatile time during which the composer was in his late twenties. Having relocated to Vienna from his native Bonn half a decade earlier, Beethoven was greatly affected by the stormy political climate of the Austrian capital: in addition to the Opus 10 and other Piano Sonatas, the final four years of the Eighteenth Century witnessed work on his first half-dozen string quartets and Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2. The Allegro molto e con brio movement that introduces Sonata No. 5 in C minor (Opus 10, No. 1) is like a time capsule in which Beethoven buried components of his stylistic evolution for discovery by future generations of pianists. Already adventurous in his use of Classical sonata form, the composer exploited the full timbral spectrum of the instruments of his time. Brawn recreates the magic of Beethoven’s symphonic breadth of expression on the modern instrument at his disposal, phrasing with grandeur that never inhibits interpretive intimacy. The elegant Adagio molto is played with simplicity that allows its melodic development to flow organically to the movement’s ideally-managed cadence. Beethoven was a pioneering advocate of the metronome, but rhythmic rigidity is ruinous to performances of his music. Brawn’s playing of Sonata No. 5’s Prestissimo Finale is characterized by subtle rubato, not least in his realization of the thematic links to the familiar motif from the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
The opening Allegro movement of Sonata No. 6 in F major (Opus 10, No. 2) was conceived on a broad scale, its straightforward interplay of ideas engendering a rich vein of melody that Brawn taps with palpable feeling but an absolute lack of sentimentality. In his playing of Beethoven, Brawn consistently wins appreciation for displaying how much more touching the music can be when the listener is encouraged to contemplate the composer’s rather than the pianist’s emotional evocations. Eschewing tradition by substituting an Allegretto minuet for the expected slow inner movement, Beethoven established an atmosphere of uncomplicated contentment atypical of his work in general. Here, Brawn’s performance is mesmerizing: unafraid of figuratively loosening his tie and unbuttoning his collar, he plays the movement with the unaffected joy with which the young Beethoven might have played it for his own amusement. Brawn’s easy command of the contrapuntal writing in the recapitulation of the concluding Presto is thus all the more apparent. In this movement, the defining trait of the pianist’s artistry is concentration, his performance exuding the complete surrender to its spell required by the music.
Sonata No. 7 in D major (Opus 10, No. 3) is the most expansive of the Opus 10 Sonatas, anticipating much of Beethoven’s later work in both mood and scale. The Presto with which the Sonata begins is almost Brucknerian in scope, its sonorities stretching the boundaries of what one expects from piano literature of the last decade of the Eighteenth Century. The immediacy of Brawn’s rendering of the music emphasizes its novelty: even played on a modern Steinway with particularly well-integrated tonal and dynamic compasses, the music sounds surprisingly daring. The D-minor Largo e mesto is devastatingly beautiful in the manner of the slow movements in Beethoven’s Violin Concerto and Fifth Piano Concerto, its subtly-contrived cantabile effects anticipating the sublime beauties of the late String Quartets. Brawn is too intelligent to overreach in his interpretation of this music, trusting the score to enchant without interference. Both the Menuetto and Trio and the valedictory Rondo are marked allegro, but Brawn highlights the contrasts between the two movements. There is still a measure of Rococo grace in the minuet, but the Rondo sheds formality in favor of the virtuosic exuberance of which Beethoven would become a prolific exponent. Brawn’s navigation of the bravado writing is predictably impressive, but it is again the guileless heart of his playing that brings the listener closer to Beethoven’s own spirit.
Dating from 1798 – 1799, Sonata No. 10 in G major (Opus 14, No. 2) is a slightly later work, the companion of the E-major Sonata that Beethoven subsequently arranged for string quartet. Brahms, Mahler, and Britten rivaled Beethoven in artful manipulation of forms and functions, but the metamorphosis that sonata form undergoes in this compact piece has few equals in the piano canon. Brawn was wise to include this Sonata alongside its Opus 10 cousins: in this company, the radicalism of Beethoven’s invention in the tenth Sonata is complemented rather than contradicted by its recorded companions. The condensed energy of the Allegro springs from Brawn’s fingers, but his reading of the movement is one of total control. By maintaining rhythmic precision, he provides a stage upon which the music’s inherent variety dances excitingly. The pianist plays the tripartite variations on the Andante’s almost hymn-like theme with great resourcefulness, his phrasing accentuating the nuances of Beethoven’s cunning treatment of the principal subject. The unanticipated fortissimo chord that ends the movement is discharged with power and a suggestion of the wry humor that Beethoven surely intended it to impart. A rondo in disguise, the Allegro assai Scherzo is a whirlwind of harmonic hairpin turns and melodic dead ends. As diverting as Brawn’s playing of the fanciful notes is his instinctual handling of the pregnant pauses around which Beethoven constructed the movement. This is Beethoven at his most playful, and Brawn responds with effervescent charisma. In truth, though, all of his performances on this disc convey the irrepressible joy of his music making.
Pianists inevitably long to add their personal impressions to the recorded legacy of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas, and there are some among them whose singular concepts of this extraordinary body of work add new dimensions to listeners’ understanding and enjoyment of the Sonatas. Rarest of all the pianists who record the Sonatas are those whose endeavors are dedicated to amplifying Beethoven’s pianistic voice with the aid of their own distinctive voices. It is among these few pianists, the true followers of Schnabel, that James Brawn’s work places him, and this fifth volume of his Beethoven Odyssey makes the 190 years since Beethoven’s death seem like mere moments. These are James Brawn’s own interpretations, but it is not difficult to imagine Beethoven’s playing echoing in them.