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Van Beethoven: The Piano Sonatas, Vol. 1

Release Date: 11/28/2012 
Label:  Concezio Productions   Catalog #: 5638044569   Spars Code: DDD 
Number of Discs: 1 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BEETHOVEN Piano Sonatas: No. 15 in D, “Pastoral”; No. 25 in G; No. 8 in c, “Pathétique”; No. 28 in A Steven Masi (pn) CONCEZIO 2012 (78:10)

It’s a sign of the times that more and more artists today are making their own recordings. That can be a bad thing, of course. The technology to self-record is so inexpensive and readily available, and contracting the services of a production Read more company to produce and duplicate a professional-looking album is so easily accomplished that just about anyone can do it. But when ego exceeds talent, as sometimes it does, we refer to the results as a vanity release.

Just as self-made recordings can be a bad thing, though, they can also be a good thing; for especially in this day and age, when major record labels are signing fewer and fewer new artists and dropping long-time ones they already have, we now have an opportunity to hear many truly gifted musicians we might not otherwise ever get to know. Steven Masi is such an artist.

His album photo tells us that Masi is not a recent conservatory graduate or a youngster fresh off the competition circuit. He has, in fact, been known to audiences for quite a few years, especially on the East Coast and in New Jersey, where he lives and teaches at the Kaplen Jewish Community Center’s Thurnauer School of Music in, of all places, Tenafly, New Jersey, home of Fanfare Magazine.

In 2011, Masi embarked on a series of live concerts at the school to perform a complete cycle of Beethoven’s piano sonatas over a period of three years. The program of that first concert, which is duplicated on this CD, took place on October 30 of that year. Three days later, on November 2, Masi sat down at the Patrych Sound Studios in New York City to record, over a three-day period, the same four sonatas he had played in concert.

Other than a pianist proving he can play these works with flawless technique, there’s not much point in doing so if he has nothing new and personal to say about them. Masi surely has much to say that is quite different and personal, though not everyone will necessarily agree with it. I decided to listen to the sonatas in chronological order rather than how they appear in the headnote and on the disc.

So, I began with the “Pathétique,” and was immediately struck by Masi’s very distinctive reading of the Grave introduction. Up until bar 5, Masi scrupulously follows the letter of the score, which includes very precise observance of the dotted-16th/32nd-note rhythmic pattern. But then on the ff upbeat to the fourth beat in bar 5, where the upper staff changes to bass clef, he elongates the 32nd note F, and makes a very slight pause before proceeding to the next group of notes. He then does exactly the same thing again in bar 6 on the upbeat to the fourth beat, only now it’s on a chord in the treble clef instead of on a single note. The effect is very dramatic, and I personally like it, though I can see that some might object to what is ostensibly a rhythmic misreading.

In contrast, Masi’s ensuing Allegro doesn’t indulge in any rhythmic irregularities, but it flows at a tempo a bit more moderate than we often hear from some of today’s young, firebrand pianists. Except for the “Hammerklavier” Sonata, Beethoven didn’t provide metronome markings for his piano sonatas, so we can’t know exactly what degree of fast he intended when he qualified his Allegro, “di molto e con brio,” but neither Masi’s tempo nor his temper seem to reflect today’s hair-on-fire approach to this movement. I’d describe the pianist’s reading as “classical” and possibly even closer in keeping with period practice than we might imagine. Masi employs a relatively light touch—he certainly doesn’t unleash the full dynamic capabilities of his Hamburg Steinway—and he doesn’t make of it a thundering Sturm und Drang commotion along the lines of the “Tempest” Sonata, which came four years later. The “Pathétique” is, after all, still a quite early work, composed in 1798, and though it’s surely a novel and daring departure, not only from the sonatas of Haydn and Mozart, but even from Beethoven’s own previous sonatas, it’s still a work that respects the boundaries of classical form and the sturdiness of the fortepianos the composer would have known at the time.

Next, I listened to the “Pastoral” Sonata, such a lovely thing. The sunny, untroubled, lyrical opening, especially as played by Masi, has an almost Schubertian feel to it. Again, the pianist’s tempo is moderate, and now, in keeping with the character of the music, his reading is relaxed and singing. He carries this approach into the second movement, giving it the feeling of a wistful song, instead of treating it, as some pianists do, in funeral march-like fashion. Masi’s third movement is perfectly judged in its playfulness. Beethoven may never have traveled to Australia, but if he visited Vienna’s Tiergarten, his idea for this short scherzo may have come from observing a couple of hopping kangaroos.

I propose a nickname for the G-Major Sonata, op. 79. I think it should be called the “Country Bumpkin” Sonata. The first movement has always struck me as one of the best examples of Beethoven’s deliberately uncultured, but good-natured and good-humored fun-poking at the peasant folk. Masi gets those hand-crossing hiccups in the development section just right, and those silly grace notes designed to sound like finger slips in the closing measures spit out like real zingers. Also, it should be mentioned that Masi observes both the first-half and second-half repeats. All other indicated repeats throughout the four sonatas are observed as well.

With the A-Major Sonata, No. 28, we enter into the rarefied atmosphere that characterizes the last five sonatas. Freedom of form and fantasy of expression are now hallmarks of Beethoven’s writing, and playing these works requires something different from the artist. He cannot remain outside the music as a reader or an interpreter. He must merge with it, become part of it, and live in its moment of becoming. Every time will be different for him, kind of like being reincarnated and experiencing it all anew. I don’t know what life Steven Masi was living when this materialization of Beethoven’s A-Major Sonata came into being because I wasn’t there for any of his previous existences, but the one he experienced for this performance must have been of transcendent grace and glory, for it’s a performance of both bliss and ecstasy.

This is not Masi’s first recording, though prior albums for the Aulos, Southwest German Radio, West German Radio, and RAI (Italy) labels, do not show up in the domestic listings. Masi is a Juilliard graduate who has performed as a soloist with orchestras in both the United States and abroad, including the Atlanta and American Symphony Orchestras, the New Symphony of London, and the Southwest German Radio Orchestra. He was a first prizewinner in the Atlanta Symphony Competition, and a prizewinner in the WQXR and Busoni competitions. Concert tours have taken him throughout the United States, Canada, Europe, and Asia. He has also appeared as a guest artist at several U.S. festivals. Currently (mid-May 2013), this CD is available at Amazon, and I would urge you to purchase it. I’m eagerly looking forward to the next installment in Masi’s Beethoven cycle.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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