Brahmsiana: Music by and Inspired By Brahms
Steven Masi, piano
Navona Records 6260
Total Time:  78:26
Recording:   ****/****
Performance: ****/****

Steven Masi has toured extensively throughout North America, Europe, and Asia.  More recently he undertook a massive project of recording all of Beethoven’s sonatas which was well-received.  For this program, he has paired two modern works with their own roots connected to two of Brahms’ memorable piano collections (Op. 117, and 118).  The sense of looking back and reflecting on one’s place in history is something which thematically links all four works on this new release.

Brahms’ Three Intermezzi, Op. 117 (1892) and the Six Klavierstucke, Op. 118 (1893) are among the composer’s more intimate pieces.  There is often a touch of sadness within their reflections.  In the case of the intermezzi, it feels more like a last love letter, and even resignation that his longtime love for Clara Schumann would not be reciprocated as he had hoped.  There is also a sense of Brahms beginning to consider that his rich harmonic language was beginning to evolve into something quite different in the new generation of composers.  In the intermezzi, the tone has a more tragic quality.  The Op. 118 pieces seem to have a more wistful quality that has some heartbreaking romanticism along the way.  The “Intermezzo in A” and final intermezzo are touchingly performed here.  The following “Ballade in g” has a somewhat careful approach as it moves through its moods.  That sense of longing can be heard in Masi’s intimate performance of the opening Intermezzo in Eb in a really beautiful performance that sets the tone for what is to come.

Brahmsiana II takes the intermezzi as its inspirational departure point.  Robert Chumbley’s three movements might best be explained as new music that uses the compositional techniques of these pieces and then reinterprets them into more modern qualities.  His approach incorporates the stronger bass lines and larger harmonic structures as well as the multiple layers of voices that are hallmarks of the intermezzi.  The first intermezzo’s music opens with an extension of Brahms’ style and then begins to slowly morph into more modern qualities.  The central one becomes even more intricate as it moves to some more extended harmonic ideas and explores a wider piano range.  The final intermezzo takes the romantic gestures and adds a bit more dissonance but still manages to feel like a parallel thread to the works that inspired it.  Masi commissioned Echoes of Youth from composer Jonathan Cziner which concludes this album.  The four-movement work has a sense of nostalgic references with the Cziner wanting to find a way to merge some of the musical trends at the end of the 19th Century into his own style.  These are quite reflective in nature as a whole with a quality that parallels their musical inspirations.

Masi’s performances equally focus on the reflective and nostalgic tone of many of these pieces in ways that help the listener begin to hear the connections between the modern retellings and reimagining of Brahms’ original works which are lovingly performed.


Review by Steven A. Kennedy