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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.

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