LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN - Complete Piano Sonatas

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN - Complete Piano Sonatas - Steven Masi (Piano) - 10-Disc Box Set - 034061166122 - Released: April 2017 - Albany TROY1661

Back in 2012, when pianist Steven Masi embarked on his long journey to learn and master all of Beethoven's 32 Piano Sonatas, and released the first volume of the series of recordings that now constitute this 10-Disc box set, I wrote a review of it, and after listening to his complete overview of the sonatas, my opinion remains pretty well the same. Therefore I will repeat almost word for word what I felt 5 years ago about his performance and the recording quality in general.

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 I wonder.

This new complete set is a private production released on a smaller independent 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. Mind you not every aspect of the playing is perfect here. In general I find his choice of tempos to err on the fast end of the scale, and that he tends to micro-manage dynamics a little too much within certain passages. But again all this helps reinforce the belief that the playing itself and/or the recorded sound was not doctored during the recording process.

I myself have learned and played some of these sonatas but definitely not all of them. I've always wondered what would motivate and drive someone to tackle such a massive undertaking. In his excellent liner notes, recording producer Joseph Patrych may have found the answer. He writes: "As of this writing (November 2016), the current number of complete Beethoven Piano Sonatas that have either been completed or are pending is 89. It is interesting to note that the number of those in production is 11. The history of commercial recording goes back to around 1903; in the first 45 or so years of commercial recording (the 78 era), Artur Schnabel's was the one complete set of the Beethoven Sonatas. Sixty-five years later, eleven sets are moving toward completion in one year. This begets the following question: why would anybody endure the enormous task of learning all this music --hundreds of thousands of notes, thousands of indications of interpretation-- when each sonata itself might speak to the individual's soul and taste in varying degrees, and with so many sets already available? Regardless of the appropriately deified status of these works, most pianists do not feel equally positive about each and every sonata. When Mr. Masi approached me with the idea of tackling this set, I was compelled by the maturity and thoughtfulness of his playing in the ones I heard. Needless to say, the sheer number of sets out there gave me a pause for this particular project, but, feeling the quality of his interpretation and his desire to do it, we forged ahead. What you have before you represents the fruit of five years of labor, consideration, discussion and a shared passion for this seminal body of work in the piano literature."

A strong recommendation if you're looking to steer clear of the "glossy and manicured" magazine cover type of production. And the packaging by Albany Records is first class. The box opens up like a binder, with each individual CD protected by a plastic sleeve that you can easily flip back and forth over binder rings. Its too bad they don't give out awards for packaging.

Jean-Yves Duperron - June 2017