Robert LaPorta, owner/director of MSR Classics, kindly alerted me to this ongoing series of Beethoven Sonatas played by James Brawn. I admit to not having heard of this series, or this pianist, before, which is a prime example of the plight of small independent record labels everywhere. Fabulous recorded music often goes unnoticed, overshadowed by the glut of marketing bunk from the big name labels, peddling their latest hottie superstar. Thankfully, we have many small independent labels in the Classical realm which still care about music - and for the right reasons - where making music is given priority above all else. Which brings me to the discs under review.
From MSR's website: "Founded in 1998 as Musicians Showcase Recordings, MSR Recordings (since August 2003) offers recording artists the opportunity to create and release an album, and to have it distributed and promoted in a global market..."
Pianist James Brawn was born in England, began piano lessons at age 5 in New Zealand, and made his debut in Australia at the age of 12. He began recording this series of Beethoven Sonatas in 2012, in Potton Hall, Suffolk, UK. Six volumes have been released thus far. Listening to them, I am struck by James Brawn the musician, even more so than by James Brawn the pianist. Oh, certainly he can play the piano! But, then again, many, many pianists can play these notes. What makes Mr. Brawn's playing special is that these are some of the most musical readings I have yet encountered. He brings an almost symphonic grandness to them. Yet, he does so while remaining faithful to the printed page. Too many pianists just have to make a statement - some musical point - to stamp their mark on these pieces, in hopes of distinguishing themselves from the crowd. As a result, they too often tend to sound mannered and, what I call, "fussy". I prefer Beethoven as Beethoven, not Beethoven as envisioned by pianist such-and-such.
In general, Mr. Brawn favors briskly moving tempos. Slow movements never drag, and Andantes move with a natural forward flow. The results sound so authentic, so very "right", that it becomes difficult to imagine them played any other way. His scrupulous observance of dynamics adds to the sense of authority.
In the earlier Sonatas, and especially in the later "easy" ones (i.e. #s 19-20 and 24-27), Brawn plays with a stunning natural expression, positively infusing them with a sublime musicality. He also brings a sense of drama, which is so expertly accomplished without a hint of undue weight or emotional baggage. It suits these works perfectly, and also reveals them to be absolute masterpieces in the genre. We discover a newfound "validity" to them, which elevates them in importance to stand alongside the more famous "named" sonatas. It's absolutely remarkable and difficult to describe how utterly musical they sound. And they are among my very favorites in Brawn's set.
As we move into some of the middle/later sonatas, we hear more of this same natural expression but with even more of the aforementioned "symphonic grandness". Perhaps there is a bit too much pedal being introduced (most notably in the final movements of the Moonlight and Appassionata). But pedaling is certainly a matter of taste. I tend to prefer the crisp clarity of Arthur Rubinstein in Beethoven, where his sparse use of the pedal is simply magnificent, revealing endless details which are often obscured. Brawn sounds nothing like Rubinstein; which isn't a bad thing. It's just different. And again, he sounds almost symphonic in comparison. (I actually have similar observations of Igor Levit's excellent SONY set.)
And while Mr. Brawn generally avoids affectation, he does at last occasionally give in to the temptation in these same two Sonatas, where we hear an emphasis here, and slight hesitation there, which tends to disrupt the forward momentum inherent in the score. But I'm nit-picking; it is never intrusive. It is noteworthy simply because it is largely absent everywhere else in the set.
On the other hand, there are so many examples where he plays with such an immersive, musical understanding of this music, criticisms are silenced, and one simply forgets about everything but the music. Of the named sonatas, the Waldstein and Tempest stand out to me, even above all the others, as being exemplary.
And, finally, some comments about the recorded sound. All of this excellence would be for not if the piano doesn't sound realistic. I have summarily dismissed many sets over the years for simply having poor recorded piano sound. (The same goes for Concertos.) I find, time and time again, many labels, especially the majors, simply cannot get it right. But once again, we are lucky to have the dedication of small independent labels who care as much about excellent recorded sound as they do about excellent musical performances. MSR firmly falls in this category.
Comparing the recorded sound of this set to Igor Levit's on SONY is enlightening. I initially thought SONY had done better than most. But after hearing the MSR, I must temper my previous admiration for the SONY, which now sounds almost too richly upholstered and plush. It makes Levit's Steinway sound more like a Fazioli, which isn't necessarily a negative, but it may not be quite realistic. Still, one can't help but luxuriate in that gorgeous, full-bodied left-hand tone, cushioned on pillows of air. However, switching to Brawn's MSR discs, one instantly enters a different world. This sounds like a real piano. Where SONY transports the listener to the hall in which it was recorded, MSR brings the piano into your listening room. It is more "present" and alive, powerful and grand. When played on a high quality stereo, the piano literally sounds in the room with you - and it is thrilling. As a matter of fact, heard from another room in the house, one would absolutely swear someone was playing a real piano in the living room!
Miraculously, the sound never turns bombastic or pounding like so many piano recordings do. (We certainly have Mr. Brawn's musicianship to thank for this as much as the recording, along with the marvelous piano he plays.) MSR's Robert LaPorta credits this outstanding recorded sound to the engineers at Potton Hall, where these sessions took place. Jeremy Hayes, Producer, and Ben Connellan, Engineer, have truly mastered the art of recording the concert grand piano. And they capture the acoustic perfectly. Once heard, it is difficult to adjust to other recordings. A similar statement applies to Mr. Brawn's Beethoven: once heard, it is difficult to accept other readings. It is remarkable how consistently satisfying this cycle is, and how it so closely matches the way I like to hear Beethoven played. I have gained enormous pleasure from it and simply cannot stop listening to it.
Mr. Brawn is recording these works seemingly in random order, or perhaps in the interest of maximizing recording timings. Each release contains an informative booklet and the entire production is first class. I eagerly await the final installments in this series, which is expected to be complete by the end of 2021.
Listed below are the contents of the currently available volumes.
Volume 1 (2012) - # 1, 3 & 23 (Appassionata);
Volume 2 (2012) - # 8 (Pathetique), 14 (Moonlight), 19, 20 & 21 (Waldstein);
Volume 3 (2013) - # 2, 17 (Tempest) & 26;
Volume 4 (2013) - # 9, 15 (Pastorale), 24 (a Therese), 25 & 27;
Volume 5 (2017) - # 5, 6, 7 & 10;
Volume 6 (2018) - # 4, 12 and 11