James Brawn in Recital, Volume 1 = BACH/BUSONI: Chaconne; Prelude in C; LISZT: Mephisto Waltz No. 1; Consolation No. 3; MUSSORGSKY: Pictures at an Exhibition; RACHMANINOFF: Prelude in b – James Brawn, p. – MSR Classics

by | Apr 28, 2014 | Classical CD Reviews

James Brawn in Recital, Volume 1 = BACH/BUSONI: Chaconne; Prelude in C from WTC Book 1; LISZT: Mephisto Waltz No. 1, S.514; Consolation No. 3 in D-flat, S. 172; MUSSORGSKY: Pictures at an Exhibition; RACHMANINOFF: Prelude in b, Op. 32/10 – James Brawn, p. – MSR Classics MS 1501, 75:46 [Distr. by Albany] *****:

I was much taken with Brawn’s Beethoven, and so this recital, part 1, was of particular interest to me. Of course the sound is still restricted here, very warm but not especially broad, yet displaying Brawn’s lovely tone and dexterous technique. The Bach Prelude is but an afterthought here, a means of clearing the palate after some ruggedly rich red wine. His Chaconne has always been a favorite of mine, and nicely done here, even if I continue to prefer the Rubinstein. The centerpiece has to be the Mussorgsky, a work almost impossible to hear without the color and exotic nature of the Ravel orchestration in the head, perhaps best exemplified on piano by the Evgeny Kissin recording on RCA. I know, I know, the Richter Sophia recital is still the gold standard for many people, but the recording isn’t the best and Richter was sloppy on that day as well; I think a re-evaluation for its canonical status is long overdue. I doubt that this one will supplant it, but Brawn has a lot to offer. Primarily his very dark, very Mussorgskian coloring. This piece is hardly meant for the flashy, colors-of-the-orient treatment; it is very earthy and shades of brown instead, and Brawn’s brown fits the bill nicely. I am not too wild about the delayed and exaggerated pedal notes in the “Great Gate of Kiev”—Kissin is the master here for sure—but even there he seems to be placing emphasis on the innate darkness of the work instead of some kind of heroic ending that we are all used to hearing in the concert hall.

He really surprises me in the Liszt and Rachmaninoff works; the Mephisto is not the most demonic I have hear—leave that to Curzon or Arrau—but it’s fluid and quite exciting, relieved only by the Consolation that follows. The Rach is big, dark, chocolaty, and dense, just what this little work calls for. So all in all this is one hoot of a recital showing a voice on the international scene that begs attention. I just hope MSR keeps him and he doesn’t make the mistake of migrating to one of the major labels. Good stuff here.

—Steven Ritter

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