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Reviews Schedl from Boston, Lieberson from Chicago and Elder from Princeton » The Scene Live highlights – page VII

Beethoven ‘A Beethoven Odyssey, Vol 2’ Piano Sonatas – No 8, ‘Pathétique’, Op 13; No 14, ‘Moonlight’, Op 27 No 2; No 19, Op 49 No 1; No 20, Op 49 No 2; No 21, ‘Waldstein’, Op 53 James Brawn pf MSR Classics F MS1466 (77’ • DDD)

talks to... Joe Miller The maestro of Rider University’s Westminster Choir on taping Elder

A musician’s name is rarely a key to his or her artistry but it can give the wrong impression. James Brawn, for example, plays with an intelligence and sensitivity that essentially refute the emphasis on physical strength his surname implies. The British-born pianist’s newest recording, the second volume in his ‘Beethoven Odyssey’, reveals him to be a deeply thoughtful interpreter, more interested in musical ideas than in bragging rights.

Brawn possesses all of the technical equipment Beethoven’s sonatas require. He can negotiate everything on the page with seeming ease, and he is a stickler for textural clarity and balance. In three monuments of the Beethoven catalogue (Pathétique, Moonlight and Waldstein) and the two ‘Leichte Sonaten’ of Op 49, Brawn gives shapely attention to phrases while also keeping an ear towards the big structural picture.

Unlike pianists who lean into the explosive aspects of Beethoven’s sonatas, Brawn paints with a subtler palette of colours. He rarely goes to dynamic extremes, instead stressing inner motion and harmonic implications. The Waldstein is the finest performance here, with a sense of almost tranquil joy pervading the narratives. No thunderous octaves will do for Brawn in the Rondo, which, in his hands, claims unusual nobility and mystery.

The other sonatas receive similarly meticulous consideration and it’s a delight to hear the rarely performed Op 49 sonatas. Brawn reminds us that Beethoven can seize attention even when he’s not storming the skies or penetrating the human soul. Donald Rosenberg

What attracted you to Daniel Elder’s music? One summer Daniel came to sing in my chamber choir programme at Westminster Choir College. He handed me something he’d written and I was blown away by its maturity and sophistication. For this project, I wanted to focus on one composer and, of all the music we considered, it was Daniel’s that I felt the most emotionally attached to.

How enjoyable is it to sing? When the choir sing his music, they light up. Daniel really understands what it takes to make the choir connect to the music both emotionally and vocally – it just fits.

How important are the words? I always say to composers, ‘Don’t write your own words’, but with Daniel there’s something magical when he does, and those pieces are among the best on this recording – they attach to a deep place, emotionally.

Elder’s music is very accessible… I’m not scared of being criticised for that because his music also has artistic depth. He understands counterpoint, and the music goes beyond the surface of pretty notes… …like in Seven Last Words from the Cross? This was one of the most painful things to record because he’s capturing the emotion of what it must feel like to be crucified. You find an element of pain throughout the piece. Describe your choir’s sound… I’m not looking for it to be manufactured and produced; I want it to be natural and fresh, because that’s what audiences connect with.

Elder O magnum mysterium. Elegy. In Your Light. A Breathing Peace. Drumsound Rises. The Heart’s Reflection. Ballade to the Moon. Star Sonnet. Lullaby. Seven Last Words from the Cross. Twinkle, twinkle little star Westminster Choir / Joe Miller with John Hudson pf Mark H Foster, Jeffrey D Grubbs perc Westminster Choir College F WCC1310 (53’ • DDD)

Most of the works on this recording show Daniel Elder to be a composer for whom serenity is paramount. He writes choral music with long, poetic lines that soar and hover, like the spiritual elements depicted in the texts. These are the kind of pieces choruses love to sing, if they have the breath control and sure pitch the music demands. (No need to wait: the Westminster Choir perform beautifully.) Elder excels in evoking atmospheres of ecstatic or hushed reverence, as in O magnum mysterium, which captures the ear through swirling figures, and Elegy, setting words by Horace Lorenzo Trim and full of slow, hypnotic statements. Texts by the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi provide the basis for three songs on themes of life and love in which Elder melds rapturous and dramatic choral phrases with subtle touches of percussion.

The disc’s title selection, The Heart’s  Reflection, uses deft word-painting gramophone.co.uk

GRAMOPHONE MARCH 2014 I