Author Topic: Steven Masi Plays Beethoven  (Read 243 times)

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Offline Todd

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Steven Masi Plays Beethoven
« on: May 07, 2017, 06:47:30 AM »

Cycle number 95 for me.  Okay, 91 if you exclude Gilels and Gieseking for incompleteness, Backhaus II because the mono Hammerklavier is used, and HJ Lim because she purposely excluded the Op 49 sonatas.  Why mention this?  Well, the producer Joseph Patrych includes an essay named "Eighty-Nine", and then claims that as of the time of his writing - November 2016 - that is the number of cycles that had been completed or were pending completion.  The correct number is well over 100.  I wish people would do their homework, especially people in the industry, who really should know better.  One other fun fact, this cycle was executive produced by actor David Strathairn, a long-time friend of the pianist.  The cycle was recorded between 2011 and 2016.  And the packaging sucks.  A multi-DVD box with safety sleeves on cheap dual plastic rings do not instill confidence that the container is built for the long haul.  This should be ripped right away upon receipt and backed up online for safekeeping, provided one wants to keep it safe.

Anyway, to the playing in the first new complete sonata cycle of 2017.  Disc one rather conventionally starts off with the Op 2 trio.  Right away, one notices the sound.  Bright and metallic, and a bit thin in the middle register, I would have thought a Yamaha was used, but it's a Hamburg Steinway.  It is not SOTA sound, but it is very clear.  Alas, there are numerous little 'pops', indicating something other than a pristine quality glass master or production run, or these are CD-Rs.  The playing is pretty much straight-forward.  Masi plays with conventional tempi and dynamics, his rubato is subtle.  That imbues the first sonata with nice energy in the first three movements, but a slight lack of fire in the last movement.  The second sonata finds Masi playing with a decent degree of strength, and the recording sounds close to reaching overload a few times.  The Largo is tense and not too slow, and Masi slightly exaggerates some passages to good effect, and he plays with power sufficient to tax the recording chain as set up.  The Scherzo nicely alternates between a harder style and a softer style, and the Rondo finds Masi adding a bit more in the way of rubato and unique accenting, though nothing too dramatic.  Masi drops some notes around 1'18-1'20" for some reason.  Still, especially after the more potent middle section almost makes one forget that, it's nice enough.  Op 2/3 is appropriately energetic, and displays nice enough inner voices.  The Adagio is slow and dark, and the tolling notes ring out clearly at first, and sound respectably powerful.  The constant tempo is perhaps more impressive.  He slows down more as the movement progresses to excellent, desolate effect.  The Scherzo is quick and pointed, and the Allegro assai starts off just a bit slower than usual, but that is done to contrast with the faster music that follows, and his left hand playing is attractively hefty, and he desynchronizes hands for interesting effect.  So, a strong end to a good starting disc. 

Disc two contains Op 7 and Op 28.  Op 7 starts off with an Allegro molto e con brio of a somewhat measured tempo, and instead of brio, one gets some near thundering playing in the loudest passages, married to some nice left hand point making, though sometimes the playing sounds taxing.  The Largo is played quite slowly, with left hand playing getting some extra attention, though it sometimes sounds overdone.  Masi slows down further as the movement progresses, and he will play around with the tempo and accents of individual phrases and chords.  Ultimately, though, the effect is more enervating than anything else.  The Allegro is powerful sounding but a bit slow in the outer sections, and the middle section is very subdued and slow, purposely, no doubt, but it doesn't work for me.  The Rondo follows the slightly slower than normal approach, and once again has nicely powerful playing in the middle section, but the sonata as a whole doesn't click.  Op 28 fares better.  The tempi can best be described as leisurely, but Masi uses a bit more pedal, plays with an effectively smooth legato, and turns the first movement into a comparatively relaxed Pastoral movement, with some nice micro-dynamic shadings on the quiet end.  Masi also ends up emphasizing the left hand playing to good effect, and at one point it dominates the right hand in unique fashion.  The also slightly slow Andante is played with a steady forward pulse, and the sharp right hand playing adds just the right amount of zing, and the middle section is slow and stiff - but in a good way, believe it or not.  Keeping with the slow theme, Masi plays the Scherzo very slow, but he pounds some chords, and plays others in a hushed fashion, and the oddly effective, purposive stiffness returns.  The disc presents the Rondo attacca, and Masi slips back into pastoral playing with a nice legato at the open, but he also makes sure to play with plenty of incisiveness as needed, though on occasion the right hand playing again seems taxed.  So, a mixed disc, with a not so hot Op 7, but a much better Op 28, though not necessarily one that would be a top ten (or twenty) choice.

Disc three contains the Op 10 trio and Op 13.  Masi opens 10/1 with pretty swift ascending arpeggios, then moves into a more relaxed basic tempo and throws in some personal rubato and shadings, but nothing too obtrusive.  The Adagio molto is played at a leisurely tempo, and Masi really delivers here.  The still bright-ish sounding piano generates some warmth and Masi's playing some depth and it sort of sounds like he's lost in the music while playing.  Masi plays the Prestissimo at a reasonably brisk pace and adds some real heft in a few places.  Op 10/2 starts with a peppy enough Allegro, though it may be a bit too heavy in spots, moves to a nicely paced and scaled Menuetto, before closing with a repeatless Presto that offers ample energy and fun, with left hand playing again notably prominent, but not overdone, in a few spots.  Masi then opens 10/3 with a very well-judged Presto, playing swiftly and with all the power this movement will bear.  The Largo opens dramatically with a good degree of tension and stays that way.  Masi also knows when to belt out some passages to good effect, and delivers a potent climax followed by an extended, subdued denouement.  Masi lightens things up in the Menuetto, which still sounds weighty, but then he lightens things up a bit more in the Rondo, which is light and bright and has some nifty, almost buzzing left hand playing in a few passages.  Good stuff, and the best sonata to this point.  Masi opens Op 13 with Grave that alternates bass-heavy blasts and tense interregnums before moving into a moderately swift Allegro, but one that is characterized by unstoppable forward momentum aided by more of that hefty left hand playing.  The Adagio is a bit tense, has some more nicely powerful playing, and maintains musical tension.  I suppose it could use a bit more beautiful cantabile playing, but then gruffness - slight or excessive - usually doesn't detract from Beethoven, and so it doesn't really here.  Masi finishes up with a potent Rondo with biting sforzandi and weightiness and superb articulation.  I'd be tempted to say this is the best sonata so far, but it follows the even better 10/3.  Sound for the disc is a bit fuller than the first two discs, the first especially, but it also has a fair amount of extraneous noise - creaks, breathing, etc.

Disc four contains the two Op 14 sonatas and Op 22.  Masi comes across as a very serious Beethoven player, and it is not uncommon in my listening experience for such players to kind of play the Op 14 sonatas a bit too heavy.  So it goes with Masi, particularly when he plays some louder passages and plays the slow passages very much on the slow side, but that written, the pieces still sound light enough to generate ample listening enjoyment.  The slow movement does have more of Masi's uncommonly prominent left hand playing to enjoy, as well.  Op 22 opens with a nicely paced, suitably energetic Allegro con brio, but the dynamic range is more compressed than in the preceding recording, and the sound is softer-edged, almost like Masi rides the una corda, though it is probably more due to recording technique.  Masi then unexpectedly plays the Adagio very slowly and very beautifully.  Tenderly, even.  It sounds almost more like Schubert in some ways, and is definitely unconventional, even when considering other slow takes.  It's effective, but an alternate approach.  The Menuetto maintains the warm, gentle sound, and a bit of the slowness in the outer sections, with only moments of something harsher.  The middle section is a bit louder but lacks the bite of Masi's prior playing.  The Rondo maintains the warmer and softer than normal sound, and the leisurely tempo and gentle approach is almost pastoral, with only a gruff but stiff and slow-ish middle section to upset the easy listening balance.  I'll have to do some A/Bs with this one.  It's non-standard, and while I can't rate it among my favorites, it's compelling in its way.

Disc five starts off with the Op 49 sonatas.  Masi plays smaller in scale here, to good effect, but the playing is a bit blunt.  It's sort of cold-water playing.  (It didn't help that immediately prior to listening to this disc, I listened to Pogorelich playing Chopin.  Different music and approach, sure, but there are pure pianistic differences to be heard.)  Op 26 comes next.  Masi plays the Andante theme nicely enough, and the variations are distinctive enough to make for a fine opening movement.  The Scherzo is quick and pointed and almost impish.  The funeral march is serious and somber and Masi makes sure to play with enough heft to satisfy, but something less tangible is missing.  The Allegro is generally energetic but may sound a smidge heavy here or there.  Op 27/1 follows.  Masi takes the opening material at a quick-ish pace, transitions to a taut and well-paced Adagio, and then the return of the opening material sounds just as appealing as the first time around.  Masi revs up a bit for the Allegro, though dynamic contrasts are less pronounced than is often the case.  The Adagio con espressione is a bit quick and tense, and then Masi closes out with swift Allegro vivace, but again, the dynamic contrasts are less pronounced than is often the case.  The Moonlight sonata starts off with a cool, swift Adagio that sort of lacks mystery but makes up for it with forward moving rhythmic drive, moves to a quick, clipped Allegretto, and ends with a fast and potent but again dynamically constrained Presto agitato, though Masi's left hand playing of the dotted rhythm is unusually ear-catching.  All of the sonatas are well done on this disc, but none really stand out in a crowded field.

Disc six is where it gets serious: Op 31.  The sound is back to the clear, hard, and bright sound of most of the prior discs, and Masi launches right into the Allegro vivace of the first sonata with drive and bite.  The loud passages have a satisfying weight, and the sforzandi a nice degree of edge.  And here, serious-funny works very well indeed.  Masi then plays the Adagio grazioso way slow.  At over fourteen and one half minutes, it may very well be the slowest take I've heard.  Now, Masi plays the opening batch of trills nice and fast, but he plays the accompaniment slow.  The second set of trills are more blurred, and then he slows down a little bit more.  And then some more, extending out some playing so that each and every note gets to be the focus of attention.  Masi then decides to play the middle section about as slow as it can be played.  The musical tension sags a bit as a result.  The return of the opening material is slower than the first go-round, and the trills are slower, too.  The Rondo is also played at a leisurely pace, sounding purposely clumsy and ridiculous, I'm guessing, with Masi playing one arpeggio as a straight chord and klutzing through some other passages.  This movement can certainly be exaggerated to great effect (Kuerti or Sherman), but this ends up sounding more lumbering.  Those who don't like this piece, or don't like this movement to be taken slowly, may very well not like this.  I can't say that it's entirely compelling, but I can't say that it's a total whiff, either.  The Tempest also gets the slow treatment.  The Largo is more or less conventionally slow to open the piece, but then the Allegro is very much an Andante in overall tempo, maybe even Adagio, though the left hand playing is pronounced and almost jittery.  Big dynamic swings are largely absent, though Masi does deliver some nice hefty bass.  The coda sounds strangely stilted and strained.  After a slow, slow, slow opener, the Adagio is more conventionally slow.  There's not much in the way of dramatic tension, so it just sounds slow, and despite the tempo, some of the playing seems a bit wobbly.  The Allegretto speeds things up a bit, to a nice Andante pace.  It just doesn't work.  This Tempest is like one of those hyped mega-storms that end up delivering light showers and a light breeze.  The last of the trio fares best.  The opening bars of the Allegro are perhaps just a smidge slow, but Masi quickly corrects that, and his insistent and clear accompaniment, overall rhythmic brio, and lighter mien make for a jolly opener.  The Scherzo continues on nicely enough, though a few passages seem a bit sonically chunky.  The Menuetto blends some nice lovely playing in the outer sections with some potent keyboard wailing in the middle section, and Masi plays the Presto con fuoco with vibrance, power, energy, and precision so good that one wishes the whole sonata would have been closer to this.  The Op 31 trio is not really a success, which basically relegates the cycle to third tier, at best, and given how unsatisfactory this critical trio ends up sounding, that may be pushing things.

Disc seven moves from the thirties to the fifties, opening with the Waldstein.  Masi plays the Allegro con brio at a nice overall pace, though some of the left hand accenting and micro-pauses may or may not be counted as entirely successful.  The close sound and relative lack of heft compared to some prior sonatas indicates something of a tradeoff between power and speed.  The slow-ish Introduzione is very Les Adieux-y in feel, yet still sounds kind of bland.  The Rondo starts off modestly paced and quite lovely, taking it's time to build up in volume to some satisfying loud playing that mixes loud and slow to decent/good effect.  About midway, Masi slows down appreciably again, stretching out phrases, this time to not so good effect.  So, some nice things, but something of a whiff.  Op 54 opens with a very pleasant minuet theme, then transitions to a moderately paced, heavy, and even clunky triplets section, then alternates back and forth.  The second movement opens tentatively, sounds attractive, but it neither picks up the pace nor sounds especially lyrical.  Meh.  (It probably didn't help that memories of Kun Woo Paik's brilliant take were still reasonably fresh when listening; he does something with the sonata.)  Op 57 closes out the disc, and here Masi starts off the Allegro assai with nicely paced and subdued playing and well-judged pauses, then launches into the heart of the movement with nice speed and deploys healthy dollops of power he displayed earlier, and his beefy left hand playing more or less throughout works nicely, and the pounding, sharp right hand playing lends more than a modicum of intensity to the proceedings.  The Andante con moto finds Masi backing way off, playing calmly and quite attractively, and maintaining the right degree of tension.  Then he launches into final movement.  The power is there, but the speed is not, held back, held in check.  He doesn't really let rip, though that doesn't prevent him from generating some real heat and weight.  A solid Op 57, one whiff, and one meh does not make for a strong disc. 

Disc eight opens with Op 90, and the opening movement is very serious and slow, sounding very much in the late LvB soundworld, but also, though potently played, it lacks bite and ultimately just sounds sluggish.  The second movement keeps the slow playing, but doesn't really add much in the way of lyricism, though it does sort of take on an Op 111 second movement vibe at times that sounds intriguing.  Op 78 is up next.  Here's a sonata that can be played lighter or heavier to good effect, and not too surprisingly, Masi goes for the heavier route.  And he takes his time getting there, playing at a leisurely pace.  Most of the playing sounds quite lovely in the first movement, as befits the cantabile designation, but it kind of drags on.  The Allegro vivace sounds a bit spunkier, but also a bit clunkier in some places.  It's good enough.  Op 79 follows.  Masi plays the Presto alla tedesca a bit on the broad side, tempo wise, but he keeps it moving forward, throwing in some uniquely accented arpeggios, plays with nice energy and some bright right hand playing, along with some uncommonly beefy left hand playing for this sonata, and gives the acciaccatura its due - its weighty due under Masi's fingers.  The Andante displays some notable tension and decidedly late Beethoven sonic qualities.  Masi then dispatches the Vivace with speed and real vivacity.  Every once in a while, I come across a recording of Op 79 that makes it sound like the real deal, at home in later Beethoven sonatas, and this is one such recording.  It is one of the greats.  The disc closes with Op 81a.  Masi plays the first movement splendidly, with energy and drive and hints of bite, plays the second movement with what can be described as somewhat agitated sorrow, and the brings it home with a celebratory but emotionally restrained final movement, where Masi again deploys some beefy bass along with his insistent dotted rhythm playing.  An Op 79 for the ages and a strong 81a off-set decent-ish Op 78 and 90 sonatas to make this a good disc.

Disc nine starts in on the late sonatas proper, and Masi immediately does his best in a somewhat slow opener to Op 101 to create a serious, somber, transcendent soundworld, and then moves into a potent, hefty, cutting march of a second movement.  In the middle section of the movement, the playing seems to wander off, as in discovering something new, something heretofore unknowable.  Not too bad at all.  Masi then slips effortlessly back into a transcendent late Beethoven soundworld in the Adagio before moving on to a quick, clear, weighty, pointed fugue.  He throws in some unique accents repeatedly to excellent effect.  A superb rendition.  The Hammerklavier is of the slow variety, with every movement timing on the slow end of the spectrum, which is not surprising.  Something else that does not surprise is Masi's generally large scale style.  His playing in the first movement is more blurred than in most prior sonatas, maybe going for a pedaled legato to mask other things, and he uses a repeated mannerism of slightly accelerating phrases, but still, it's a strong opener.  The Scherzo sounds much the same, and the blurred playing seems here to be a way to evoke a quasi-orchestral type sound.  The Adagio starts off ever so slightly tense, belying the near twenty minute length, and Masi continues to use some micro-accelerations to good effect, as well as his slightly blurred playing.  The music then does move on to somewhat bleak but abstract sounding playing of no little interest.  The playing doesn't plumb the depths of the best versions, but nor does it sound shallow or slight.  The final movement opens with a not as slow as expected Largo, then moves into a fugue that starts off slightly more briskly than expected, but Masi tamps down the power a bit.  It is a very good rendition, but not as relatively good as 101.  Still, it looks like Masi has saved his best for last.  That's not necessarily a bad thing.

The final disc opens with a very fine Vivace, ma non troppo to Op 109 characterized mostly by nuanced, quiet, and delicate playing, with pianissimo of near Yamane levels of quietude.  That Masi is actually playing as softly as it sounds is displayed in the one really loud passage, which is much, much louder, but not banged out.  The movement is beautiful, serene, and unabashedly transcendental in style.  The slow-going Prestissimo works fantastically well, offering large dynamic swings and powerful left hand playing, while maintaining a late LvB sound more than is usual.  The final movement starts off lighter and brighter in the theme, but almost imperceptibly moves into a calmer, gentler vein of playing, as serene and beautiful as just about any recording in the catalog.  Masi plays the remaining variations slowly, except for an expertly and extrovertly dispatched third variation, and, even with the fast variation, maintains the same nearly ethereal, transcendent feel throughout until the powerful ending.  This is one of the highlights of the cycle, and if maybe not top five or top ten, it is formidable.  I may have to do some comparisons with some big guns later.  Op 110 starts off with the lighter, brighter approach, and doesn't have quite the same transcendent feel, though it does have Masi's masterly left hand rhythmic underpinning.  The Allegro molto sounds punchy and quick, though not especially weighty.  Finally, in the last movement, Masi introduces some deeper playing, starting off with a sort of desolate, searching sound.  As the movement progresses, the playing takes on a more strident tone in the fugue, then moves to heavy and ominous playing in the transition to the second arioso.  Masi then does something unique in that he builds up the repeated chords in volume nicely, but does not play at or near the volume he can, but instead plays the left hand notes after the final chord as loud or louder, then moves into an inverted fugue that is faster, more energetic, and more intense than the fugue.  This is not a great rendition of the sonata, but is filled with enough unique insights to warrant repeated listens.  Masi truly tears into Op 111, with the opening pages of the Maestoso sounding purposively and effectively biting, with accelerated phrases.  When he moves into the Allegro, it is bass-rich, hefty, and displays an almost Lisztian level of diabolicality.  He does not do just that, no: Masi backs off a bit to play the slower music in more typically transcendent late Beethoven style.  The contrasts are most effective.  The second movement starts with an Arietta that is calmer than the first movement, but not ideally serene of transcendent, at least at the outset, because then Masi seamlessly transitions to such a sound in the second half.  The first variation is, if anything, even more transcendent than the Arietta, though the piano sounds a bit the worse for wear in the upper registers at this point.  The second variation picks up a bit, shedding just a bit of the transcendent sound.  Masi then plays a somewhat stilted and restrained third variation.  It's got some vigor, though not as much rhythmic swagger as expected by this point.  As he moves into the fourth variation and beyond, Masi is hit and miss.  The "little stars" sound flat; there's no there there.  The first chain of trills sounds a bit sluggish and enervated, and the subsequent playing before the next chain of trills sounds heavy and droopy.  The second chain of trills sounds a bit anemic as well, though Masi sets a course to match Yaeko Yamane's quietness, though he doesn't match her, and as the coda approaches, the playing takes on a more ethereal tone, though it is interrupted by some stiff right hand playing and ultimately the coda is just too plain sounding.  So, a mixed bag of an Op 111, then.  The opening movement is chock full of ideas and superb playing, but the second movement misses the mark a few (important) times.  Not a great rendition, but again, one that begs to be revisited and listened to in comparative listening sessions with second and third tier versions. 

Time to assess Masi overall.  Masi peaks high with Opp 22 (in a decidedly alternate approach), 28, 79 (!), 101, and 109, but the other three late sonatas are too variable, and Op 31 is two-thirds not up to snuff, so this is a third tier set.  That written, there is a lot to listen to here, a lot of ideas.  Masi is definitely not a straight-ahead type guy, nor is he idiosyncratic like Sherman or Pienaar or Heidsieck.  He is closer to the second category, though.  This is definitely a heavier set, and Masi's prominent left hand playing really demands some A/Bs with David Allen Wehr, and I will most certainly be doing that.  One thing that I did find a bit unusual is that heavy, serious approaches generally work better in later sonatas (eg, Craig Sheppard), but Masi is a bit better in the earlier sonatas.  Overall playing is at a high level, but in a number of instances, it is clear that Masi is not in the Korstick or Goodyear or Kikuchi category of technique, though that is mere observation.  Variable sound and a not always top shelf sounding piano also end up being slight impediments to maximum enjoyment.  For inveterate cycle collectors, I'd say this is a must-have, but for everyone else, not so much.
The universe is change; life is opinion.   Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

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