A Beethoven Odyssey, Volume 1 = Piano Sonatas: No. 1 in f, Op. 2/1; No. 3 in C, Op. 2/3; No. 23 in f, Op. 57, “Appassionata” – James Brawn, piano – MSR Classics MS 1465, 72:34 [Distr. by Albany] *****:

James Brawn, a name new to me, was born in 1971 in England and lived in New Zealand, Australia, and the United States as well. His initial training occurred in New Zealand. This album marks the beginning of what may be a complete Beethoven piano sonata series; the disc title is not exactly clear about this though the liner notes hint at it. If that is the case then we are in for one whale of a treat, for Brawn’s pianism—and more importantly, his interpretative skills—are formidable indeed, some of the best recent Beethoven playing I have heard, and these sonatas have been coming at us like a hurricane for the last 10 years or so, some brilliant editions in the best modern surround sound, some simply stereo, like this one.

Too often the First Sonata in F-minor is given a perfunctory run-through, a sort of Haydnesque let’s-get-on-with-it approach. While the Haydn of the sturm und drang period certainly haunts this sonata all the way through, by the time we get to the end we are in the clutches of a new and full-fledged romanticism, just bursting to escape the confines of sonata form. That doesn’t happen here—sonata form remains intact—but you can already see the end coming. The first movement of this wonder is made even more wonderful by Brawn’s rather clipped phrasing and ultra-short staccatos—the effect heightens the drama greatly and sets the scene for a performance of infinite affection and intensity. When the last movement arrives he doesn’t hesitate to give the piece a flamboyant and flowing sense of pedal and rhapsody which taints the whole work with a sense of something far more advanced than the first sonata the composer ever penned.

The Third Sonata, which is calmer but explores some interesting harmonic byways (and is also dedicated to Haydn), attempts to exploit the piano in ways that it had not been before, ending with great bravura and ushering in a whole new world of pianistic undertaking. Brawn is on top of it all and meets each challenge Beethoven presents.

The “Appassionata” is of course one of the greatest warhorses in the literature, a magnificent example of how Beethoven was learning to manipulate his motives into something far beyond the confines of their initial seeds. The outer movements are sonata form, with the middle movement simple variations, but the drama comes in through the sudden contrasts and tempo changes, keeping the listener on the edge of the seat in this aural page-turner. It’s tough for any performance to etch its way into the catalog here, for there are some great ones out there. I remember the old RCA called Last Concert for Israel where Rubinstein gives an electrifying performance while missing what seemed like half the notes in the last movement. Here Brawn zaps us as well, but hits them all in a performance of great finesse and excitement.

I needed to turn the sound up a bit but the results were clear and pure. Keep your eye on this one—it could be a stunner if they take it all the way.

—Steven Ritter