BEETHOVEN: The Piano Sonatas Vol. 1 = Sonata No. 15 in D Major “Pastoral”; Sonata No. 25 in G Major; Sonata No. 8 in C Minor “Pathétique”; Sonata No. 28 in A Major – Steven Masi, p. – Concezio

by | Sep 6, 2013 | Classical CD Reviews

BEETHOVEN: The Piano Sonatas, Volume 1 = Sonata No. 15 in D Major, Op. 28, “Pastoral”; Sonata No. 25 in G Major, Op. 79; Sonata No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 13, “Pathétique”; Sonata No. 28 in A Major, Op. 101 – Steven Masi, piano – Concezio Productions, 78:00 [Distr. by Phoenix] ***1/2:

“Careful” is a loaded word as far as musical performance and criticism thereof are concerned, but I think it can be rightly, and flatteringly, applied to Steven Masi’s Beethoven interpretations. 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. I have to say, however, that I prefer somewhat crisper tempi. For example, despite the marking Allegro ma non troppo for the Rondo finale, Masi’s plodding gait doesn’t appeal on first hearing and sounds affected with repeated acquaintance. I also find the contrast with the Piu allegro quasi Presto of the coda slightly awkward here; the ending sounds brash after the moderate tempo the pianist maintains throughout.

I feel the same way about the opening of Beethoven’s “easy” sonata Op. 79. Marked Presto alla tedesca, it should have the brio of a lively German dance but in Masi’s hands galumphs along as if it would rather be a stodgy little Ländler. Luckily, Masi’s performance doesn’t “go south” altogether, and the succeeding movements are on target, the Vivace finale as snappy as you would want, the coda carefully shaded with the pianist’s signature care for matters of dynamics and rubato.

Perhaps Masi is simply more emotionally attuned to the two last sonatas on the program because his performance of these works is admirable. 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—a perfect conclusion to a program that despite its unevenness bodes well for Masi’s Beethoven project. Here’s hoping that subsequent volumes emphasize the evident strengths of this first one.

—Lee Passarella

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