December 21, 2023


Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Nos. 13, 16, 18, and 22. James Brawn, piano. MSR Classics. $14.95.

Magical Christmas Fantasies. Caroline Fischer, piano. Genuin. $16.

     At last, James Brawn is eight-ninths of the way through his decade-long exploration of Beethoven’s piano sonatas on the MSR Classics label: his versions of 27 of the 32 sonatas are now available. These recordings have been a very long time coming, trickling out at irregular intervals that have made it frustrating for listeners who appreciate Brawn’s way with the music to wait for the next in the series – or even to know when it will become available. Brawn’s skill in this music is such that the extended intervals between discs seem not only unnecessary but also somewhat capricious – doubly so in light of the entirely illogical arrangement of the sonatas on the discs. The seventh volume in the sequence happened to be one that made sense, containing Sonatas Nos. 30-32 – or would have made sense if it had been the final release. But now we have the eighth volume, and it delves into four sonatas composed between 1800 and 1804, and having no particular reason for being presented in this mixture. The quirkiness of the ongoing releases is a shame, since the playing is so good: Brawn has an unusually well-developed sense of balance between the highly dramatic aspects of the sonatas and their more-delicate, more-lyrical elements, and that balance is much in evidence in this penultimate recording. Brawn has a fine sense of the foundational structure of No. 13, Op. 27, No. 1, labeled “Quasi una fantasia” and dating to 1800-1801. Beethoven wanted the four movements of this work played without a break, turning it into an extended “story arc” with improvisational-sounding elements – and while Brawn does separate the movements, he keeps a clear sense of how they interrelate to form a cohesive whole. In No. 16, Op. 31, No. 1 (1801-1802), the scale is larger: it has three movements rather than four, but lasts 27 minutes, while the duration of No. 13 is 15½. What Brawn does well with the greater length is to showcase this sonata’s opportunities for grander gestures and deeper emotions, especially in the very extended Adagio grazioso second movement. Here Brawn brings out a mixture of sweetness and tenderness that truly makes the movement central to the sonata’s expressiveness. Next on this CD is No. 18, Op. 31, No. 3 (“The Hunt”), the third in the same grouping (in another of the many oddities of Brawn’s sequence, No. 17, “The Tempest” and the second of these three, was on Volume 3 of these releases). The stylistic similarities between Nos. 16 and 18 are quite clear in Brawn’s readings, but what really draws a listener’s attention is the emotional differences between the works: they are expressive using similar techniques, but their overall effect is quite different, and Brawn manages to show this quite clearly. The final sonata on this disc, No. 22, Op. 54 (1804), is a two-movement work that is one of the less frequently played of the sonatas – at least in part because it is overshadowed by its immediate neighbors, No. 21 (“Waldstein”) and No. 23 (“Appassionata”). In some ways No. 22 seems like half a sonata, beginning with a minuet and moving to a finale. In other ways, though, it is fully cohesive, and interesting in its presentation of movements that are strongly contrasting in several ways: triple vs. double time, improvisational sounds vs. moto perpetuo, strict vs. free harmonic shifts. Brawn does not try to make this brief sonata more grandiose than it is, but he clearly understands its innovative aspects and is also well aware of a kind of underlying humor that is all too rare in Beethoven. There is a timelessness to the entire set of Beethoven’s sonatas, for all that they were written at so many different points in the composer’s life. Brawn has a sure sense of their similarities as well as their differences, and his latest exploration of a few of them continues to show his own sensitivity to their structure and communicative styles. It is unfortunate that the skill of the interpretations is so much at odds with the very-long-drawn-out release of Brawn’s cycle, and the peculiarity of the content mixtures on most of the individual discs.

     Interpretative skill and an unfortunate element are also mixed on a Genuin recording featuring Caroline Fischer – a CD that self-limits through its title, which ties it directly to a specific seasonal holiday and implies that the music is seasonal as well. Some of it is, to be sure, but this is not one of those trying-to-be-cute-and-upbeat recordings featuring arrangements of popular songs – CDs designed to be trotted out once a year and then ignominiously stored. The 14 works on this disc include three by Bach – one from Orchestral Suite No. 3 and two from cantatas (BWV 147 and 208). There is the always-delightful set of variations on Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman by Mozart. There is a touch of Schumann and a bit of Tchaikovsky. And there are some small items of exceptional tenderness and beauty, including fantasies on Silent Night and Zu Weihnachten by Gustav Lange (1830-1889), and Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen by Otto van Walden (1871-1924). The mixture of familiar and virtually unknown music is one of the attractions of this enchanting disc. Fischer’s playing is another. Even though some of these pieces are trifles, she refuses to treat them as such, allowing each work to take center stage long enough to introduce itself, deliver its pleasantries, and yield the limelight to the next. Nothing here is lengthy: Mozart’s 13-minute variations last longer than anything else, followed by the strongly accented and virtuosic Weinachts-Fantasie by Robert Leonard (1868-1916), which is nine minutes long. But while many compendiums of shorter works come across as if they are essentially a series of encores, the effect here is different: Fischer treats each piece as an exploration of a small world that then becomes part of something larger – the Christmas season. So, yes, the seasonal specificity is what knits together this wide-ranging recital, but not everything here needs to be considered strictly Christmas-focused – not the Mozart variations, certainly, and not the charming Drei Nüsse für Aschenbrödel by Karel Svoboda (1938-2007), and certainly not the march from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, a work that certainly has strong seasonal associations but that is worth listening to anytime. It is a pleasurable experience to hear Fischer’s sensitive treatment of all of these pieces, and there is certainly nothing wrong with the collection being designed for a specific time of year. But the playing is so good, and the mixture of material so enjoyable, that one can only hope the disc outlasts the brief time period for which it is designed and continues to deliver musical pleasures throughout the year.

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