“A Beethoven Odyssey”, Volume 2 = Piano Sonatas: No. 8 in c, Op. 13, “Pathetique”; No. 14 in c#, Op. 27/2, “Moonlight”; No. 19 in g, Op. 49/1, “Leichte”; No. 20 in G, Op. 49/2, “Leichte”; No. 21 in C, Op. 53, “Waldstein” – James Brawn, p. – MSR Classics MS 1466, 76:35 [Distr. by Albany] ****:

I took on Brawn’s first volume here calling it “some of the best recent Beethoven playing I have heard” and thinking that a whole series could be a “stunner” if indeed it is to be a whole series. This volume certainly gives that indication, but then again I thought that about the Hogwood Haydn symphony series on Oiseau Lyre until the short-minded folks at Decca pulled the plug on it right before they got to the twelve “London” symphonies, so you never know!

In any case, the standards are still very high on this release, though I am not quite as happy with the whole thing as on the first volume. More on that in a moment. But the sound remains beautifully warm and low-level (meaning you have to turn it up, but that is always better than having to reduce it) and a more comforting piano sound on a non-surround sound recording you will not hear.

While I am the first to admit that the “Pathetique” sonata is often overplayed and too aggressive, there is also some truth in the notion that the work demands a certain kind of angst and passion in order to sell it properly. Beethoven titled the work a “Grand Sonata”, seeming to make a statement with it, and the work can take a lot of forearming, always offset by the delicious Adagio Cantabile middle movement that is now so popular. Brawn himself admits in the notes to the release that it is a “work of symphonic proportions”, but I don’t hear him playing it that way; instead we have a softer, more improvisatorial style that I fear saps the piece of some of its more postulating strength, making it more mannered in approach instead of declamatory. This is a valid viewpoint, no argument there; just one that I don’t think reaches the heart of the piece, though played without fault.

“Moonlight” on the other had strikes me as not improvisatory enough. The last movement is taken with all the blazing brilliance the work requires, but I miss the dreaminess of the first movement, surely one of the most impressionistic pieces Beethoven ever wrote, and the off-balanced drunken stupor of the Allegretto second movement, so beautifully put forth in Wilhelm Kempff’s DGG recording.

The short and wonderfully condensed two Op. 49 sonatas are given very serious and fine readings that too many other performers play as if in their sleep.

However, when we get to the “Waldstein” Brawn regains his formidable exemplary form once again to produce a reading of superb nuance and wonderfully adept communicative manner. If there is a more life-affirming sonata in the entire thirty-two, I don’t know which one it is. Beethoven was heading to Vienna from Bonn, and his friend Count Waldstein was expecting great things from him. Even the opening movement of this work pulsates with the rhythms of movement, of a person going somewhere. Harmonically the piece already presages some of the bolder experiments to come, but he is still able to maintain a communicative directness that is reminiscent of the earthy and earthly delights of his newfound digs.  Brawn intuitively senses the underlying spirit of this music and locks into it completely, his digital touch able to give the music and its rhythms just the right degree of emphasis.

So two down, and how many to go? One can only hope…keep them coming MSR!

—Steven Ritter