Monthly Archives: March 2015

James Brawn (piano)


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.


Booklet.qxdIn 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.

Perth Festival

UBU and the Truth Commission

State Theatre

reviewed by Neville Cohn


DSC_8426In 1948 in South Africa, Dr D.F.Malan’s National Party came to power, turfing out the Smuts government and setting about laying the foundations of a hateful and cruel separation of the races. If you were classified ‘white’, you were at the top of the heap. If you were black, you were dumped at the very bottom.


Although many still firmly believe that the Nationalists were voted in because of their apartheid policies, it was nothing of the sort. It was, improbably, the promise of white bread – not apartheid – that swept the Nats into power. And they ruled implacably for decades with their hideous policies, ensuring the disenfranchisement of the black majority. They applied these ghastly laws with cold indifference to the misery they caused, always claiming – with breathtaking hypocrisy – to be God-fearing and guided by the bible.


During World War 2, it was forbidden to use white flour for baking. But countrywide, housewives would break the law by sifting wholemeal flour to rid it of bran – and a thriving cottage industry worked overtime to produce flour sifters which could be found in millions of households. By 1948, South Africans were tired of brown bread – and it was something as trivial as a guarantee of legally available white bread that swept the Nats into power and for decades they ruled the political roost.


Particularly in the latter years of their appalling incumbency, the secret police tortured and murdered many black citizens to ensure their ruthless hold on power – and it is to Mandela’s unblemished credit that when the Nats were finally voted out of power, there was little vengeful retribution on the part of the newly enfranchised black majority. And the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to bring out into the open innumerable horrific events engineered by a cold, cruel government, was an important safety valve for airing understandably shocking grievances.


But it is a cruel irony that while black citizens now have the vote, most have little else. Poverty is widespread, crime rates are very high – and reckless promises on the part of black leaders that there would be jobs and rising standards of living for all in the new South Africa have not materialised for millions of embittered black citizens – and endemic corruption at the very highest levels has exacerbated matters.


UBU is set in this latter period. It’s ribald, whacky, loud and hugely entertaining. It is also very disturbing. The two main protagonists are Pa Ubu, played by Dawid Minnaar, the former policeman (who doesn’t really regret anything he’s done) and Ma Ubu, his black wife in a relationship that would have been unthinkable and severely punished in apartheid South Africa.


As Ma Ubu, Busi Zokufa is a delight. With a booming voice, which occasionally alters to a squeak – and immense energy, she moves about the stage as if it were her natural milieu. Alistair McCall Smith’s description of Precious Ramotswe of No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency as ‘traditionally built’ would apply, too, to Ma Ubu, who, delightfully, trips the light fantastic, moving about the stage as if it were her natural milieu. Minnaar, on the other hand, invariably garbed in underpants and vest (has he any other clothes, I wonder?) is a dour presence with an absolutely authentic Afrikaans accent. The two get on fairly well but there’s tension and some bitterness between the two because of Pa Ubu’s philandering ways.


Added to the mix are three puppeteers who do wonders with three scene-stealing dog heads and a rather crotchety but articulate crocodile.


Reminders of the country’s violent recent past are provided by confronting black-and-white drawings of people being tortured at the hands of the police. These are flashed onto a screen at the rear of the stage. They need no explanation and add significantly to the air of foreboding that is a hallmark of the production.


I hope UBU is seen by many around the world. It certainly deserves a long run.

Fringe Festival

Opera Undressed

Penny Shaw (soprano)/ Tommaso Pollio (keyboartd)

Casa Mondo Tent, Russell Square

reviewed by Neville Cohn



Penny Shaw FRINGEWORLD Festival Opera Undressed 19 to 22 Feb 2015 Casa Mondo image by Jay AutyIt was a first­time experience for me: a striptease on the part of the accompanist for a program of well ­loved opera arias.

Initially, it was off with the jacket and bowtie. Then trousers were removed revealing bright green board shorts and hairy legs. There was more to come, though, with board shorts also removed to present very upmarket, multi­coloured underpants.

I hope that these extraordinary goings ­on do not trigger a craze for similar entertainments.

From a purely musical point of view, though, there was much that was thoroughly worthwhile in a performance that maintained focus, momentum and good humour on the part of soprano Penny Shaw despite having to contend with less­than­ideal performing conditions. And not even Tommaso Pollio’s burlesque­type antics could detract from commendably focussed vocal artistry.

Throughout, Shaw reached out to the audience with excellent diction and a delightful sense of humour. But I’d very much have liked to listen to this recital without maddening sonic intrusions –

doef­doef thumping (from some distant rock band?) and irritating machinery noise (could this have been from the air conditioners?) – and a busily fidgeting photographer nearby.

Penny Shaw has a voice that projects confidently and meaningfully – and it is complemented by Pollio’s profoundly musical presence at the keyboard.

There was also a jolly music quiz in which three brave concertgoers volunteered to take part as contestants, sparking a good deal of merriment from both participants and audience, the former offered Lindt chocolates in bright red wrappers.

I can’t recall such uncomfortable seats – bare planks! ­ since attending Pagel’s Circus in Cape Town when I was about 8 years old.