Classical Music Sentinel – Review

FRANZ SCHUBERT – Late Works Vol. 1 – Steven Masi (Piano) – Digital Release Only – Released: March 2023 – Navona Records NV6505

Drei Klavierstücke D 946, No. 1 in E-flat Minor
Drei Klavierstücke D 946, No. 2 in E-flat Major
Drei Klavierstücke D 946, No. 3 in C Major
Piano Sonata No. 21 in B-flat Major, D 960

Back in 2017, when I reviewed pianist Steven Masi‘s release of Beethoven’s Complete Piano Sonatas, I had remarked “there is a live human being at the keyboard, engaged in Beethoven’s sound world, emotions and all.” It’s arguably easier to impress with his music because of Beethoven’s many differing dramatic twists and turns, and expansive thematic development of the most rudimentary motifs. And I know I’ve said this before, but it certainly bears repeating: “Unlike Beethoven for example, and maybe because he wasn’t as technically proficient, Franz Schubert (1797-1828) never allowed pianistic bravura to alter the direction or purpose of a piece. Like a vulture, he would keep circling over the same thematic idea or subject until he had exhausted all possibilities, instead of flying off in a different direction and expanding a movement’s development. But then again, many individual movements of his piano sonatas are of a bewildering beauty, and some, like the Andante sostenuto of the Piano Sonata No. 21 in B-flat Major, D 960 are profoundly moving.”

And here, Steven Masi performs this movement at what sounds like a stately 36 beats per minute, a tempo where the hands are barely moving. A sombre, almost inert forward motion that well serves the music’s dark and morose character, and brings out the entrancing effect of even the slightest harmonic shifts. When Schubert finally attains in the end the uplifting key of C-Sharp Major (where all seven notes are sharp), Masi’s slow and contemplative playing literally allows the music to glow from within. His dynamic shading is exemplary throughout. But then, from the harmonic shift into C Major to the conclusion in C-Sharp Major, where the indication is ppp, his expressive balance between the two hands is perfectly controlled, with absolutely no affectations.

All in all, the lyrical and cantabile character of Schubert’s piano writing eschews the severity reserved for Beethoven’s music. Steven Masi certainly makes that clear with generally insightful, airy and bright outer movements where the melody is of prime concern and always well focused.

Jean-Yves Duperron – March 2023