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Brilliant pianists tend to be either jaw-dropping virtuosos or they are intensely musical. James Brawn, at 42 years of age, while having the chops at his disposal to negotiate the thundering octaves of Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz No 1 or Mussorgsky’s Great Gate at Kiev belongs in the second category. He is a musician first: you hear it in the clarity of line maintained throughout the extensive variations of Busoni’s monumental arrangement of the Chaconne from Bach’s Violin Partita No 2, the gentle cantabile of Liszt’s Consolation No 3, and the unaffected fluidity of the C Major Prelude from Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier.
Brawn was born in England, but spent his early years in New Zealand and Australia, where he first studied piano. He has won many prizes. For a while he returned to Melbourne to teach at Scotch College but in 2010 moved back to the UK to resume his concert career – of which this and two discs of Beethoven sonatas are a product. The title “In Recital” reflects the judiciously chosen program; the disc does not seem to have been recorded live in concert.
The centrepiece is the Mussorgsky, where Brawn takes a thoughtful approach. He is more at home with the melancholy of The Old Castle and the mystery of Catacombs than the bustle of the Limoges marketplace – the latter feels slightly cautious. Again, musical values of balance and clarity are paramount.