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Alwyn, Grace Williams, Arnold, Wordsworth. Searle, Joubert

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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
The Piano Sonatas: Volume I
Sonata No. 15 in D, Op. 28, Pastoral [27:45]
Sonata No. 25 in G, Op. 79 [10:16]
Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13, Pathétique [19:12]
Sonata No. 28 in A, Op. 101 [26:00]
Steven Masi (piano)
rec. 2-4 November, 2011, Patrych Sound Studios, New York City
CONCEZIO PRODUCTIONS 884501832373 [73:13]

Steven Masi's new cycle of the Beethoven sonatas starts with a bold choice of four great works that are very different from one another. The results are divided between successful and less so. Best is the famous Pathétique, strong of spine and lyrical too, with some of Masi's idiosyncrasies - take the rhythms of the introduction, or the clear accompaniment in the adagio's central passages - perking up my ears. I'm pretty jaded about this piece, have heard it too many times, but Masi brought back my interest and curiosity and gave me greater pleasure than any performance has in years.
On the other hand, the Pastoral sonata begins so slowly that Masi manages to be both eccentric and pedantic at the same time. Depending on the passage, the tempo can be breathtaking or dull, but it's possible to achieve glowing lyricism at far faster speeds, like Andrea Lucchesini (24:22), Ivan Moravec (23:17), or François-Frédéric Guy (24:02). The first movement of the tiny gem No. 25 (Op. 79) has a similarly heavy tread, which is a shame, because the rest of Masi's performance is more or less impeccable.
The disc ends with a joyous reading of Sonata No. 28 (Op. 101), Masi bringing Bach-like precision and grandeur to the counterpoint of the finale. Combined with the irresistible pull of the final minutes, this makes for a compelling reading, so the second half of the CD is much better than the first.
The sound quality is a little boxy and studio-bound, with some very fine playing in the Pathétique spoiled by glassy treble - and at 3:26 in that sonata's adagio, a loud click. This is one of two Beethoven sonata CDs to arrive in my listening pile this summer from recording engineer Joseph Patrych, and the other (with pianist Beth Levin) was much worse. There's an executive producer named David Strathairn, and I wonder if this is the same David Strathairn who is an Oscar-nominated actor: Good Night and Good Luck, Lincoln. They've been in the same room together, at least; Strathairn narrated a multimedia program about the life of Robert Schumann, and news reports on the event mention that Masi was in the audience.
Repeated listening has made me look with greater kindness on this disc. The Pathétique is restorative; No. 28 is another major success. Not everything is to my liking, and I wish the sound opened up a bit and was kinder to the treble, but Steven Masi's playing is interesting enough that I look forward to being stimulated and challenged by future volumes.
Brian Reinhart 

Masterwork Index: Beethoven piano sonatas