BEETHOVEN: The Piano Sonatas, Vol. 2 = Sonata No. 31 in A-flat Major; Sonata No. 9 in E Major; Sonata No. 10 in G Major; Sonata No. 23 “Appassionata” – Steven Masi, p. – Concezio Productions

BEETHOVEN: The Piano Sonatas, Vol. 2 = Sonata No. 31 in A-flat Major, Op. 110; Sonata No. 9 in E Major, Op. 14, No. 1; Sonata No. 10 in G Major, Op. 14, No. 2; Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, Op. 57 “Appassionata” – Steven Masi, p. – Concezio Productions, 77:12 [Distr. by Phoenix] ****:

Steven Masi continues his exploration of the Beethoven sonatas, of which he certainly has his own ideas, realizing them soundly and intelligently via his Hamburg Steinway CD-147. The opening movement of the Op. 110, for instance, provides definite resonance and perhaps unusual emphasis to the flowing bass line while he executes the singing trill and occasional dance-figure that carry the serene affect forward. Only the hesitant coda alerts us to the arrival of F Minor Allegro molto’s descent into emotional depths. Some mannered phrasing of the triplets in D-flat insists that Beethoven’s syncopes will remain disturbing and relentless. Suddenly, the air clears with the initiate chords of the Adagio, ma non troppo. Beethoven seems to have anticipated Scriabin’s liberation of the dissonance as he gropes to the song of lamentation. The transition to strict polyphony via a three-voice fugue Masi graduates without any diminishment in tension, leading to more Manichean hues of dark and light from the opening Adagio, G Minor versus G Major. Big chords in G fix our ears when we engage once more in polyphonic finesse, all by way of modulating to the original A-flat Major while thinning out the texture. Potent and lyrically ecstatic, the music under Masi’s controlled hands achieves a veritable apotheosis in grand colors.

The two 1798 Op. 14 Sonatas each presents a youthful optimism that occasionally enjoys throwing an irreverent surprise at traditional form, likely the influence of the playful side of Haydn. While Masi occasionally falls into the “careful” designation allotted him by my colleague Lee Passerella (https://www.audaud.com/?s=Steven+Masi), tempos generally remain crisp and fluid to avoid martial stodginess in the ascending fourths of the E Major Sonata’s opening Allegro, the sixteenths of the left hand active without degenerating into vapid mechanics. The jabbing accents in the midst of apparent gaiety suggest a sturm und drang element that projects a weighty lyricism. Beethoven evidences the penchant for dramatic key shifts in the G Major Sonata first movement, as well. The affecting E Minor second movement of the Op. 14, No. 1 does convey a degree of (marcato) heaviness I do not hear in my preferred Gina Bachauer rendition.  The lively Rondo: Allegro comodo from Op. 14, No. 1 enjoys an explosive but tempered propulsion from Masi, moving to a bravura statement of the main tune against syncopated triplets.

The G Major Sonata, OP. 14, No. 2 by Masi conveys a galant surface invaded by shaded wit, a lyrically mercurial affect supported by an Alberti bass. Syncopes and impish accents make the C Major Andante – a theme and three variations – a cleverly hued march. Beethoven calls his 3/8 last movement Scherzo: Allegro assai, but he employs the old Haydn synthesis of rondo-sonata form. Some may find Masi’s approach to this inventive and forward-looking movement preciously wrought with “meaning,” but Masi does allow it dance. Masi’s consistent attentiveness to matters of the left hand bears fruit at the sonata’s end, where Beethoven employs the lowest notes available on the keyboards of his era.

Beethoven’s 1806 F Minor Appassionata Sonata seems tailor-made for Masi’s strong suit, since it communicates emphatic turbulence and often relentless energy. Those who savor the penetrating power of Beethoven’s D-flat secondary theme, rounded off by the “fate” motif, will find Masi’s etched articulation of the passage compelling, even shattering. The 12/8 signature which produces a limpid stream in the Pastoral Symphony here erupts into a torrent of contested tonality, the tonic and dominant degrees locked in mortal combat. The flattened degree of the supertonic, a Neapolitan effect, makes this piece an emotional predecessor of Chopin’s G Minor Ballade. By the time Masi extends the agony to F Major for the recapitulation, the battle has assumed prophetic power, rocketing from adagio pianissimo to a monstrous fortissimo so that we can compare Masi’s tiger to that of Sviatoslav Richter.

Sixteen bars of common chords in D-flat Major set the melody for the Andante con moto, a theme with four variations, meant to relieve the intense passions of the opening movement. Masi states and embellishes the theme prosaically, except for the third variation, quite bravura with its thirty-second notes, Masi’s switching hands to create a sense of doubling that retains a distinctly lyric element. The final variant, with its shifts in register, seems to exist only to move harmonically to the dominant of F Minor so the perpetual motion of sixteenths may begin. Sir Donald Tovey felt that the music unequivocally expresses some universal tragedy, and Masi would appear to agree, given the percussive surges and well articulated eddies of sound he urges from his instrument. Even so, the moments that ask Masi to fill in the opening arpeggio figure of the sonata enjoy a plastic undulation, a poignant sense of Orpheus’ heartfelt song. To call Masi’s playing “merely” careful or conscientious perhaps undervalues the plain-spoken authenticity of his approach.

—Gary Lemco

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