Sunday 11 May 2014

James Brawn in recital

James Brawn in Recital - MSR Classics
Mussorgsky, Liszt, Bach/Busoni, Rachmaninoff: James Brawn: MSR Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on May 11 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Bravura recital from young pianist James Brawn

On pianist James Brawn's 2012 recital disc he pairs Mussorgsky's virtuoso tour de force Pictures at an Exhibition with piano show pieces, with Feruccio Busoni's arrangement of Bach's Chaconne from the Violin Partita No. 2 in D minor, List's Mephisto Waltz No. 1 and Consolation No.3, Sergei Rachmaninoff's Prelude in B minor and Bach's C Major Prelude from Book 1 of the Well Tempered Clavier. The disc is on the American MSR label, with whom Brawn is also recording a sequence discs of Beethoven.

Brawn was born in the UK, but brought up in New Zealand and Australia. He reached the concerto final of the ABC Young Performers Awards in 1987, leading to concerts with the Adelaide and Melbourne Symphony orchestras. James continued work with his mentor, Rita Reichman, in Philadelphia and gained a full scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music, London, at the age of 17 in 1988. At the age of 19, he won the keyboard final of the Royal Over-Seas League Music Competition, performing at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London. Brawn returned to the UK in 2010 and is now based in the Cotswolds.
He opens his recital with Busoni's 1893 arrangement of the Chaconne from the Partita No. 2 in D minor for Solo Violin by Bach, a towering translation of a masterpiece from one genre to another. Brawn's playing is rhythmically tight, with flexible and crisp fingerwork rather then romantic, the whole being technically superb. His performance develops grandeur, though his attack remains firm and highly articulate with some fabulously crisp runs. One thing that struck me as I listened to this performance the hints of historical performance practice which Brawn brings in, his style would work very well in pure Bach and creates and interesting view of Busoni's very romantic view of the great composer.  The slower middle section is a wonderfully centred quiet moment.
Liszt's Mephisto Waltz No. 1 has virtuoso demands of quite a different nature as Liszt requires the player to harness their technical skill to the story telling required in a programmatic piece. Brawn is again technically assured and nicely impulsive with some dazzling fingerwork and creates a finely dramatic narrative. Brawn follows this with Liszt in a different vein; a fluidly fluent account of Consolation No 3 in D flat major.

Here, though, I have to pause and consider the piano sound itself. I must confess that in the Liszt and in other places on the disc, I did rather find the keyboard sound at the top end of the register rather glassy and brittle. Though this seems to be a common fault in piano recordings.

Mussorgsky wrote his Pictures at an Exhibition in 1874 after seeing a memorial exhibition of pictures by his friend, architect Viktor Hartman (who had died in 1873 at the age of 39). There were over 400 paintings and drawings in the exhibition and Mussorgsky chose ten to depict in music, linked by a promenade theme. Whilst the orchestral version of the piece is very familiar, notably in Ravel's orchestration, Mussorgsky's original version is less so. It calls for a bravura performance from the pianist as, like Liszt's Mephisto Waltz, the player must combine virtuoso playing with narrative and quite a degree of stamina.

Brawn opens with a Promenade which is steady and not too grand, but full of the promise of things to come. The little gnome, Gnomus, is stylised and dramatic, with some nice creepy touches and a lovely hard edge to the chords. The medieval castle and troubador, Il vecchio castello, is gently evocative, whilst the following Promenade is rather grander.

The Tuileries gardens have an infectious charm, and Brawn brings a wonderful heavy feeling to the slow progress of the Polish cart drawn by oxen in Bydlo. The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks is all dazzling, perky charm, and wonderful fingerwork. The duet for the two Jews, Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle, is technically brilliant, but Brawn also imbues the work with drama and a sense of dialogue.

The Market at Limoges is dazzling again, as Brawn creates a sense of real excitement, and I loved the way the movement hurtles headlong into the dark, strong and austere Catacombs. Con mortuis in linguq mortua shimmers in a quietly eerie fashion, then the witch Baba Yaga - the Hut on Fowl's Legs has an exciting edge to it. The final Great Gate of Kiev is grandly massive, with a strong sense of scale.

The whole performance is impressive for the way that Brawn, for all his technical skill, conveys the sheer bravura struggle of the piece.

In complete contrast, Brawn follows with Sergei Rachmmaninov's Prelude in B Minor Op.32 No.10. A performance which starts quietly poetic, but builds via big romantic repeated chords (though I have to confess I did wonder whether Brawn allowed himself to rather over articulate them).

Finally Brawn returns to Bach with a poised account of the opening movement from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1.

This is an impressive disc and Brawn's debut recital disc, I believe, combining technique and musicality; highly recommended.

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