Recording Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas in the 21st Century: An Interview with Steinway Pianist James Brawn

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The great pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow once called Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas the New Testament of music. This bold declaration foreshadowed the lofty status Beethoven's Testament now holds in the Western canon of classical music. It also set the stage for an impressive lineage of recordings, beginning with the first-ever complete cycle by Artur Schnabel—the celebrated Austrian pianist known to Harold C. Schonberg as "the man who invented Beethoven." Among those who followed in Schnabel's footsteps are some of the greatest pianists of the 20th and 21st centuries—Claudio Arrau, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Wilhelm Backhaus, Daniel Barenboim, Alfred Brendel, Annie Fischer, and the list goes on—and so it comes as no surprise that many pianists today treat this massive undertaking as a right of passage.

In one sense, however, it's also dangerous to enter the company of such esteemed colleagues. How does one "compete"? What new can be "said" of music that has been a staple of the repertoire for so long? These are some of the questions facing Steinway Artist James Brawn as he continues his Odyssey—now half finished—to record von Bülow's New Testament.


Your project invokes a monumental legacy of inspired Beethoven interpreters. Do you feel the weight of history on your shoulders?

While it is true there is a great historical legacy of recordings, the only pressure I feel personally is to do these piano sonatas justice and play them as faithfully as I am able. The works of the great composers, like Beethoven, are such a privilege to study and perform, and I feel very lucky to have the opportunity to record this cycle for MSR Classics.


As an artist, do you draw on the work of those who came before you? Or are you a lone wanderer?

Perhaps I'm more of a lone wanderer, in the sense I've always done my own thing and in my own time. Certainly when I was a student—until my early twenties—I was influenced by my teachers, as well as recordings and performances by great living pianists. So at that time, there was always someone looking over my shoulder, so to speak. But for the last twenty years I've managed to focus on music that I can't live without. The Beethoven sonatas have become extremely important to my being, and communicating this personal passion in recital, recording, and teaching is the inevitable outcome.

Who exactly was looking over your shoulder, either literally or figuratively?

One of my first teachers, Margaret Schofield, would have me listen to the recordings of Solomon at the end of lessons. She had studied with him, and she felt it was important for me to hear the directness of his musical utterance. Another teacher of mine, Rita Reichman, passed on her knowledge of the sonatas that she had received from Rudolf Serkin and Mieczyslaw Horszowski. And I have always enjoyed listening to and watching the performances of Daniel Barenboim. His performance approach has always seemed to me to be very natural, honest, and free.


Do you recall anything in particular about any of those influences—or others? How, if at all, has their "touch" found its way into your interpretation of these pieces?

I think hearing the complete Beethoven piano sonatas performed by the Australian pianist Roger Woodward, when I was a child, probably implanted an idea and feeling that I would like to do this one day. Then again, all of my teachers inspired me to explore and study the Beethoven scores. They also imparted a sense of responsibility to learn this great music with intensity and integrity. I have always tried to achieve this in my playing and pass this on in my teaching.


Now that you've moved on and gained independence as an artist, do you think it's important to say something new with each recording? Or is novelty in and of itself an overrated metric of artistic success?

My own feeling is that there are many recordings available, and that can only be a good thing. Personally, I don't try to say something new. In fact, Beethoven's music is still very new and original—only 200 years old! To play his scores faithfully takes tremendous effort and time from a musician. It is an artistic re-creative process that takes more than a lifetime. Recordings, for me, capture a moment in time—an audio snapshot of my musical journey. They allow me to share my uncompromising vision of the Beethoven sonatas with a worldwide listening audience.


This idea of capturing a moment in time represents a very different approach from, say, that of Glenn Gould, who used the recording medium to achieve perfection via multiple takes, splicing, and so on. Does this approach resonate with you in any way?

This begs the question, 'What is perfection in music?'—and especially in a recording situation. Probably, Gould would have loved this digital/Internet age of ours. Of course, there are an infinite number of possibilities with current editing techniques and computers at our disposal. However, I prefer to perform my program in its entirety, with the hope that these first takes form the blueprint for the recording. Then, with the help of expert ears from my producer and engineer, we proceed to listen hyper critically and edit where necessary.


Do you find the recording process artificial in any sense? Or at least incapable of providing the kind of "audio snapshot" for which you strive?

In a way, the recording process is just a different artistic process that I enjoy as much as performing concerts. Sometimes I feel my live performances of great music can be enhanced by an audience, but not always. Also, there can be compromises in terms of the quality of piano and the hall's acoustic. With recording, I have far more control over these things. In the Beethoven discs recorded thus far, I hope listeners will feel like they are eavesdropping—perhaps sitting in the front row of the Potton Hall studio!


Do you play differently for a microphone than for a live audience?

Actually, no. For me, it has never made any difference whether I play for one person or an audience of one thousand. When I record at Potton Hall in Suffolk (UK), for three days at a time, I have a ready-made audience of four wonderful people: my producer, Jeremy Hayes; my recording engineer, Ben Connellan; and my piano tuners, either Graham Cooke or Peter Law.


And how about Beethoven, in particular: does his music require a specific recording environment?

I think his music requires an excellent piano, maintained to the highest standard of course. The sound needs to be crystal clear, to allow the music to be experienced in the highest definition. A naturally very quiet studio or hall is imperative. Personally, I like to be surrounded by countryside and beauty too, which Potton Hall provides in abundance. Then, I give myself the best opportunity for inspiration.


Turning back to the sonatas themselves, is there any one that stands out to you in terms of its technical challenges? And how about interpretive challenges?

Das Hammerklavier has to be the "Mt. Everest" in all piano literature. In terms of physical and mental stamina, it is without any doubt the most monumental. Just the great Adagio movement by itself lasts 20 minutes! I began studying this sonata in February 2010 and look forward to performing and recording it one day! Every one of the sonatas, though, have difficulties that require careful musical study and appropriate technical training.


Do you have a favorite Beethoven piano sonata?

Not really. Normally my current repertoire holds all my attention and focus. So for now the Op.7 and Op.10 sonatas are my favorites. Particularly the Largo movements of Op. 7 and Op.10, no.3. I suppose I love all the sonatas without exception. There is always a special moment somewhere in each sonata that connects me inexorably to the piece. Then I have no other option but to study, perform, and then finally record it—a point of no return, and therefore going forward in my understanding and interpretation of these great works.


Do you have any advice for young pianists who aspire to one day tackle von Bülow's "New Testament"?

Of course, they must try this journey! Sometimes, students underestimate their capabilities. Start with the best Urtext edition—this is very important. Then listen carefully to great recordings and performances by living pianists. Find wonderful but demanding teachers who can give you the correct technical training and inspiration to continue. Then, never, ever give up!


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