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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
6 Bagatelles, Op. 126 (1824) [20:11]
Piano Sonata No. 30 in E major, Op. 109 (1820) [21:22]
Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57 ('Appassionata') (1804-05) [27:48]
Katie Mahan (piano)
rec. 2017, Meistersaal, Berlin, Germany
STEINWAY & SONS STNS30161 [69:14]

Some listeners unfamiliar with the work of American pianist Katie Mahan may think she is relatively new to international audiences, and so it would likely come as a surprise to them that this is her fourteenth recording, her first going back to 2005. Previous releases on various labels were devoted to a wide variety of repertory, taking in works by Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, Brahms, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Bartok and many others. Recent recordings include separate discs devoted to Debussy, Gershwin and Bernstein (his complete solo piano music on DG). This is her first all-Beethoven disc and it portends well for this young pianist.

As you listen to her Beethoven you notice that her interpretations are all well thought out and show that she has a strong grasp of the composer's idiom. To me, pianists playing Beethoven's sonatas on modern instruments generally fall into two classes, those taking a Romantic-inclined approach and those favoring a leaner more Classical style. Ms. Mahan falls into the former category, her dynamics tending toward the meaty side, her pedaling generous and her tempos moderate to slightly expansive but with ample flexibility to make shifts toward either faster or slower pacing. Like most pianists in the first group, she doesn't slight the predominant Classical elements in Beethoven, but merely looks a bit more toward the Romantic movement in interpretation. Let me cover the works here in their chronological order.

The Appassionata Sonata, which closes the disc, has a big and epic character in Mahan's account. Its opening comes across with plenty of mystery, sounding more dark than stormy: those fierce rising bass chords at 0:52 and 1:00 have plenty of weight but exhibit a less sudden and agitated sense. Mahan phrases the main theme astutely to point up both its lyrical and restless character, and imparts the faster music that soon follows with the necessary urgency. The development is well conceived and played and the remainder of the movement is most convincing.

The “theme and variations” second movement is paced slowly in the outer sections and richly buttered with abundant sostenuto applied to chords. The livelier inner variations have a graceful but chipper demeanor in their happy, mostly unhurried tread forward. Again, Mahan looks at Beethoven through a somewhat “Romantic” lens here and does so convincingly. The finale is well played too: it is energetic and spirited, Mahan's digital clarity and accenting quite fine, her pedaling liberal unlike a good many other pianists who lean toward a more staccato touch here. In no way does she shortchange the sense of anxiety though, but in fact highlights it with her brisk tempo and subtly applied dynamics, which are especially splendidly executed in the way crescendos swell and diminuendos fade. Overall, this performance must be judged a success, strongly convincing on its own terms.

Mahan's account of the Sonata No. 30 features a similar kind of approach with much the same technical and interpretive assets. The first movement rightly divulges a mixture of the serene and playful. If the second movement is not quite paced as a true prestissimo, her tempo sounds right still, because as is well known Beethoven is thought to have marked his late works with overly fast tempo indications. Some music historians have concluded his metronome, acquired from Johann Nepomuk Mäzel around 1817, was defective. Anyway, Mahan's rendition of the second movement is very convincing in its tempo, dynamics, accenting and other aspects of phrasing. The finale is even better, Mahan delivering her best performance on the disc in arguably the finest music here. True, her tempo in the opening and closing statements of the theme is quite slow, even if Beethoven's marking of Andante molto cantabile might be slightly flawed. But Mahan makes these outer sections work with her imaginative phrasing and subtle interpretive acumen, and then, in contrast, she brings on a sense of grandeur and ultimate triumph in the faster variations in between. A fine performance!

The 6 Bagatelles, a collection comprising Beethoven's last work for piano, opens the disc and the performances again follow Mahan's Romantic-inclined approach, a vantage point hardly controversial here as the Romantic movement was clearly in the air at the time this music was written. Nos. 1 and 3 may be slightly earthbound in their slower pacing but are still quite convincing. No. 2 is driven and lively and I like the way Mahan exaggerates the contrasts a bit. No. 4 might have had a somewhat more harried character but is still a reasonably fine performance. The final two Bagatelles are simply splendidly conceived and played.

The sound reproduction on this CD by Steinway and Sons is clear and the tone of the Steinway D Hamburg piano quite fine. That said, the acoustics at Meistersaal in Berlin are perhaps a bit on the reverberant side. In the end one must assess the performances here as quite impressive. Mahan's style of Beethoven interpretation reminds me in many respects of those of Cliburn and Rubinstein and perhaps even of Rudolf Buchbinder. As suggested earlier, she generally does not exhibit the leaner tone, less frequent use of pedal and faster tempos of well known Beethoven players like Artur Schnabel, Alfred Brendel and many others, but her interpretive manner is mainstream still as there are countless other pianists who espouse her kind of treatment of Beethoven's works. Moreover, most listeners and critics will recognize that her consistency of style, solid interpretations and technical skills are very convincing. These performances herald a highly successful career for this fine young pianist.

Robert Cummings

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