Fanfare Magazine Review of Pianist Steven Masi

Colin Clarke  March 14, 2014

Volume One of Masi’s Beethoven cycle gets off to an auspicious start, with a “Pastoral” (No. 15) that does indeed sound as if it was, to paraphrase Masi himself, singing itself into existence (it was in fact this very songlike quality that impelled me to ask about the pianist’s links to Schubert). The inclusion of the first movement repeat adds to the sense of breadth; the surprisingly emphatic accents act, perhaps, as a reminder that this is after all Beethoven we are dealing with. Masi’s awareness of texture is key to his reading: Listen to the tremendous left hand staccato in the second movement, for example, perfectly weighted and perfectly toned. The remaining two movements provide perfect contrasts: the rugged third against the hurdy-gurdy of the Finale.

The opening movement of the brief op. 79 Sonata (No. 25) is perhaps a tad slower than one might expect from the Prestoindicator, but it becomes clear that Masi’s intent is to emphasize the music’s rugged qualities. This Sonata also acts as the perfect example of Masi’s ability to capture the spirit of each individual movement, yet still to meld them into a totality. So it is that the central Andante is properly pathetic (linking beautifully to Sonata No. 8), while the Finale is terrifically playful. Of course it is the Sonata No. 8 itself, the “Pathétique,” that follows, its Grave’s violent stabbings gloriously delivered. The first movement’s repeat returns to the opening of the Allegro. Masi’s sense of lyricism is beautifully presented in the slow introduction, returning again in the famous central Adagio cantabile, while the Finale seems to seek to marry the lyricism of the latter with the dynamism of the former under the umbrella of C Minor. It works beautifully, and satisfyingly.

Finally for Volume One, another Sonata that breathes itself into existence: op. 101, No. 28. Here the glorious recording comes into its own, reproducing Masi’s lovely pearly top. The rapt affection is near palpable. The martial elements of the second movement are fully honored, something rarely heard. The Finale finds Masi at one with the late Beethovenian stasis, his understanding of line and structure enabling the movement to unfold naturally. This is gloriously sustained playing, complete with tantalizingly playful counterpoint delivered with a staggering, almost Bach-like sense of clarity.

The order of the first volume has it close with the late period sonata; it opens (birthed itself, perhaps) with the “Pastoral,” with Nos. 25 and 8 sandwiched between. The second volume presents the late sonata (op. 110, No. 31) first, perhaps because this, like No. 15, eases the disc in gently. Again, Joseph Patrych’s recording enables the sweetness of Masi’s tone to achieve full effect. Perhaps the central Allegro molto does not quite scurry around as it might, but in balance, Masi makes complete sense of Beethoven’s more bare textures (by no means always the case in this Sonata). The Finale confirms Masi’s special place in this repertoire. It is not exaggerating to suggest that Masi belongs with the elite in the late sonatas, providing as satisfying an experience as the likes of Solomon, Kempff, and Pollini, for example. Each texture of this Finale, the place of every note, is carefully considered, yet the sense of exploratory, transcendent journey is profound indeed. Masi hardly seems to feel technical hurdles (his “Hammerklavier” will be interesting). It is as if everything is in the service of Beethoven.

It is a long way back from op. 110 to the two op. 14 sonatas, Nos. 9 and 10, yet it works because of the sense of relief after the intensity of the closing movement of the former. Despite this, Masi does not see the op. 14 sonatas as throw-away pieces. His attention seems to underline their stature. The beautifully paced and proportioned, even crisp first movement of No. 9, the simply gorgeous Trio of that Sonata’s central movement, or the Schubertian lyricism of the No. 10’s first movement, all provide much joy and seem perfectly in accord with each piece’s place in Beethoven’s sonata canon.

The famous “Appassionata,” No. 23, offers, on paper, a virtuoso way to end. In the event, Masi’s way is more considered. Some might find the first movement lacking in power, for this is no power-through. Masi is keen to investigate the lyrical side of the piece: think of the diametric opposite to Pollini. The articulation in Masi’s Finale is a model lesson in clarity, as is his pedaling. Again, no technical problems are present at all, and the coda is appropriately earth-shattering, but it is the delicacy that remains in the mind afterwards. After hearing these discs, the closest parallel that springs to mind in this repertoire is Claudio Arrau, in terms of clarity of thought and of texture (neither pianist, I suggest, could ever be accused of over-pedaling).

Two intensely thought-provoking releases from a fine Beethovenian, then, providing the best possible beginning to a cycle that may well by its conclusion be up there with the finest.