BEETHOVEN Piano Sonatas Nos.1-32 ● Steven Masi (pn) ● ALBANY TROY1661 (10 CDs: 674:38)
It’s been quite a season for Beethoven piano music enthusiasts. In the past several months, we’ve witnessed the completion of sonata cycles by Pavali Jumpannen and Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, not to mention the epic conclusion of Ronald Brautigam’s survey of Beethoven’s complete solo piano works. Then, there was the fruition of a set with whose performer, Steven Masi, I had been absolutely unfamiliar but with which I’ve been having the pleasure of new acquaintance. What sets Masi’s set apart from the others is a sense of voyage, a kind of spontaneous approach to each sonata that charts a singular path of progression through a series of pieces that, all too often, can come off sounding glib, affected or some uneasy combination of both.
By way of transparency, let me offer a bit of reviewer context. Maybe it needn’t be said, but, as with most things of enduring quality, there is no best Beethoven sonata cycle. In the right hands, much interpretive freedom can lead to new insight and experience for the listener open to hearing it, from the smallest details of color and structure to the vast architectural principles Beethoven learned, expanded and ultimately destroyed and redesigned. For me, the journey has become paramount in importance, and if the performer can document a personal vision of that journey, as Masi does, so much the better.
Since nothing can replace the journey itself, a few snapshots along the way must suffice. Masi’s is a Beethoven on course to the mountaintop. My listening began with his Hammerklavier, that yardstick by which the merits of most cycles can be measured. Whereas Bavouzet performs the piece as a juxtaposition of classical and romantic aesthetics, a defining characteristic of his survey, Masi confronts the mammoth creation as a height to be scaled. His opening movement thrives on elasticity of phrasing and tempo, a wild ride of fits and starts that conveys formal inventiveness clad in Beethoven’s now ill-fitting Classical garb. The recurring ascensions to the recapitulation and its celebratory air prove prophetic of what Masi will do in the rest of the sonata. As with movements that are traditionally played in a more lighthearted manner, such as the scherzo, Masi’s approach has a certain severity that only makes sense in the context of the third and fourth movements. I have never heard the Adagio’s opening chords voiced in such a colorful way, their shifts in chromatic harmony emphasized by each note and chord; rather than the series of character studies presented by Bavouzet, for example, it becomes clear that for Masi, the first two movements are a kind of prelude to the sonata’s larger and more significant second half. Each third, each gesture born of that third and each episode leading to the next gesture are treated with the respect and imbued with the raw emotion and power that only long experience can foster. His adagio is one of the cycle’s high points, an absolutely enthralling eighteen minutes whose concluding picardy third has never seemed so apt, so justified, such a moving resolution.
Op. 106 turns out to have been the best starting point; it might be most useful to suggest that Masi’s take on Beethoven exudes a calm severity. His early Beethoven does not sparkle with youthful vivacity but bristles with the sublimated energy of preternatural wisdom in youthful check. Voicing and gesture never become dull, as they’re never repeated exactly the same way. Listen to the low C in the early F-major sonata’s concluding movement, differently articulated with each occurrence, for the wonderful and spontaneous way Masi voices. He focuses on the devils in the details and the contexts they breed. Compare any of the opus 2 sonatas to his highly charged opus 111, and the transgenerational similarities are immediately apparent. Masi takes the whole opening phrase in time, a rare occurrence in Beethoven playing, only to reintroduce elasticity into the rest of the exposition.
The name of Russell Sherman appears over and over in my listening notes. Sherman’s excellent and underappreciated set is one of the more revelatory of recent years for many of the same features that differentiate Masi’s traversal. He is neither mimicking nor paying attempting to one-up the venerable teacher and performer, but the freedom of thought in his approach is similar. The recording, somehow quite close but also often very reverberant, is best heard on headphones. For breathtaking virtuosity serving safe interpretations well inside established lines, we are spoiled for choice, but much rarer is the offering of insight via a unified vision of this extraordinary body of work. This is Masi’s crowning achievement. Marc Medwin