Beethoven: piano sonatas: ‘Pathetique’ opus 13; ‘Moonlight’ opus 27 no 2; ‘Waldstein’ opus 53; Sonatas opus 49 nos 1 and 2
TPT: 76’ 35”
MSR Classics MS 1466
reviewed by Neville Cohn
With notes clothed in consistently fine tone and the dramatic essence of the slow introduction to Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata conveyed to a nicety, James Brawn goes on to essay the allegro section in an unfailingly nimble and fluent way. Momentum is splendidly maintained. This is an impressive account, not least in making familiar notes sound fresh, indeed newly minted.
How pleasing, for once, to listen to the adagio cantabile coming across refreshingly free of the excessive sentimentality that has scuppered so many lesser accounts of the movement. Brawn’s is a model of good taste – and the finale unfolds impeccably.
An unhurried, consistently calm reading of the famous opening movement of the Moonlight sonata is a model of good taste. And the second movement, taken a shade slower than usual, with a rather restrained trio, is a fine foil to the finale. Virtuosic and tempestuous, the playing of the finale is informed by an altogether fitting sense of urgency and intensity. This is a splendidly muscular reading.
In Op 49 no1 in G minor, Brawn allows the music to speak for itself without, as it were, interposing himself between composer and listener. The rondo is unfailingly nimble in a charming account that underscores the carefree, upbeat nature of the piece.
In opus 49 no 2 in G, the opening movement is often mutilated by earnest, well-intentioned young piano students. Here, it falls most pleasantly on the ear. And the minuet, which years earlier had a place in the composer’s hugely popular (at the time) Septet, is unfailingly buoyant in this piano version.
In the opening movement of the Waldstein sonata, Brawn sets a blistering pace but there is some inequality of the beat, an occasional state of rhythmical unease. Much of the playing is commanding and confident but there are brief moments when focus
lessens. Beethoven’s trademark sforzandi are impressively handled.
In Brawn’s hands, the adagio molto is finely focussed and beautifully presented.
Skilled use of the damper pedal ushers in the finale in an altogether appropriate sonic haze, a fine tonal mist against which the melody line is etched. Many of the more assertive moments have a magisterial, muscular quality. At times, though, one senses a pianist under some pressure in the movement’s most cruelly demanding measures – but this reservation is minor in relation to so much that is thoroughly worthwhile such as the calmer, dreamy episodes which are consistently successful. The extended trills in the prestissimo conclusion are beautifully spun.
Brawn’s recording of the Waldstein is a good second to Benno Moiseiwitsch’s peerless, long-ago recording on mauve label HMV 78 rpm records which, in my view, has never been surpassed.