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.
“What I find particularly distinctive and impressive about the performances on this compact disc is that Masi’s interpretive style is refreshingly single minded and seemingly far removed from what many typically expect from an “in your face” objective modern American philosophy: The first few bars of the “so-called” Pastoral Sonata, Op. 28 unfold with a serene, patient deliberation that immediately (for this seasoned listener) recall the unhurried, cameolike intimacy of Wilhelm Kempff: The remaining three movements have gratifying detail, many subtleties of nuance and tempo plasticity (within a firm basic pulse)…
And in many ways, Masi’s version of the Op. 101 Sonata is the most distinctive of all. The Alla Marcia second movement has exemplary clarity of voicing, and buoyant rhythmic firmness especially. And the work’s total architecture is ironclad and organic.”
Masi strikes me as an artist that combines an innate musical instinct with an intellectual discipline in a perfect balance in which neither dominates, but in which both work together as a single, unified entity.
“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.”
CLASSICAL MUSIC SENTINEL “ESSENTIAL RECORDINGS”
“I don’t know about you, but sometimes, after listening to certain recordings of Beethoven sonatas interpreted by world-renowned pianists, sponsored by large corporations, and released on major, well-established labels, I come away with a feeling that I’ve just been taken for a ride. By that I mean that I get the impression that the recordings have been digitally manipulated. Just like a photograph of an aging celebrity has been air-brushed or given the “photoshop” treatment to make them seem younger and look much better than they do naturally, some of these recordings simply sound too good to be true. Each and every note is in perfect dynamic balance and rhythmic value with each other, and the capture of the acoustic space around the instrument is always perfect. Highly sophisticated computer software allows for digital data manipulation down to the millisecond. For example, if the recording engineer doesn’t like the sound of one note, he can easily delete it and have it replaced by a “fake” or “simulated” version of that note. Sufficient funds are available to cover extra studio time to gloss over mistakes and polish the sound. But is all that true to the nature of a Beethoven piano sonata?
This new recording, by pianist Steven Masi, is a private production released on a small label, and it shows. The flawless presentation may be missing, but in its place you get an honest interpretation of Beethoven’s music. And when I say this isn’t flawless, doesn’t mean that there are mistakes. Far from it. What I mean is that it sounds like the overall performance by Steven Masi was captured in real time, with the least level of cover up. Here and there a particular note will sound a bit metallic, or an accent will seem too sharp, or a series of consecutive arpeggios will seem uneven, but then these are the indications that there is a live human being at the keyboard, engaged in Beethoven’s sound world, emotions and all. And his technique is to be admired, especially his economical use of the sustain or “damper” pedal. So many pianists, by heavy use of sustain, can muddle over their flaws that way. The selection of opus numbers for this Volume 1 could not have been better. A good representation of both cerebral and expressive Beethoven in equal balance. The expressive beauty taking center stage in Masi’s heartfelt rendition of the slow movement of the Pathétique sonata.
A strong recommendation if you’re looking to steer clear of the “glossy” magazine cover type of production.”
Vol. 1 beginning with an op. 28 which invests Beethoven’s rich episodic scheming with a deeply moving emotional vulnerability. Masi appropriately abandons the spacious structures which work so effectively in Op. 28 in order to explore the hedonistic wilds of op. 79, a performance highlighted by numerous touches such as the delicious grace notes at the end of the first movement and a nearly motionless beauty in the second. Even in the concluding Vivace, the virtuosity which Masi flashes so effortlessly gives way to moments of exquisite poetry. In the Pathetique, Masi and the recording team capture the colours of the piano to an extraordinary degree
GENERAL ANZEIGER BONN, GERMANY
“His playing is admirable in every respect and is imbued with a magical melancholy.”
NEW YORK TIMES
“A pianist of gifts…The concluding Toccata (Prokofiev Sonata No. 7) was thrilling… He had no trouble proving that he is an accomplished instrumentalist and musician. His performances told of empathy for the music and understanding of their organization.”
THE TELEGRAPH, CALCUTTA, INDIA
“Schumann’s abject romanticism could not have deserved a better acolyte than Masi, as he approached the Fantasie Pieces, op. 12 with a bouquet of notes that radiated a sense of convivial chaos, comprising a litany of small melodic phrasings, mildly peremptory and sometimes coquettish, all in an ode to the sense of beckoning melancholy that weaves through most of Schumann’s oeuvre.”
MUSICWEB-INTERNATIONAL, UNITED KINGDOM
The disc ends with a joyous reading of Sonata No. 28 (Op. 101), Masi bringing Bach-like precision and grandeur to the counterpoint of the finale. Combined with the irresistible pull of the final minutes, this makes for a compelling reading.
The Pathétique is restorative; No. 28 is another major success. Not everything is to my liking… but Steven Masi’s playing is interesting enough that I look forward to being stimulated and challenged by future volumes.”
“Right from the start in the lovely “Pastoral” Sonata, it’s evident that Masi has thought a great deal about matters such as dynamics and phrasing. The shaping and shading of the first movement are carried out with great care, and the slightly slow tempi allow the listener to savor the pianist’s studious ministrations.
In the Op.13 Sonata, I especially appreciate the way Masi shapes the first movement development section, subtly recapitulating the crescendo patterns that attend the rising figure of the agitated first theme. If, again, the rondo finale is taken at a slightly broader pace than you sometimes hear, the tempo allows Masi to emphasize poignant details that suggested the title Pathétique to Beethoven’s publisher, Joseph Eder.
The most demanding sonata of all, Op. 101, probably gets the finest performance. The contrast between the sweetly inward first movement and the impulsive march of the second movement is perfectly gauged. And the last movement, which can meander in less skillful hands, has all the purposefulness that Beethoven intended for it, with its neo-Baroque structuring and polyphony, its subtle recall of themes from the earlier movements. Very effective and affecting.”
NEW YORK CONCERT REVIEW
Pianist Steven Masi gave a ferociously virtuosic performance of Justin Dello Joio’s Two Concert Etudes: Momentum and Farewell.