Questions for Steven Masi (Fanfare Interview)
CC: The previous Fanfare interview (with Maria Nockin) already covered your education and teachers. In it, you say, “Beethoven represents a meeting of the opposites: the sacred and the worldly. I think he is the absolute embodiment of the Divine within humankind.” Lofty words, and certainly the playing backs them up. There appears to be an unshakable faith in the eternal validity of Beethoven’s music in your playing … (please comment as you see fit)
SM: Beethoven speaks to us and about us, to the high and low of us. He can be coarse at one moment, celestial in others. His suffering is shattering to the listener, never self indulgent or sentimental, and his moments of exuberance are life affirming. He is, like Shakespeare, a man for all seasons. We need him now more than ever.
CC: Maybe we could dwell a little on what Beethoven means to you in this interview as the previous one had a lot of background in it?
What about Beethoven scholarship? There are a lot of musicologists out there working on his music from a variety of standpoints. How much do you take this work into consideration? And do you refer back to the original autographs?
SM: I read Charles Rosen with pleasure, both his book on the Sonatas and his great work, “The Classical Style.” I also refer to Tovey, a brilliant musicologist. I find the most interesting thing is to read the score itself. I sometimes make copies that I paste onto a board so I can see the whole thing at a glance. Doing that enables me to see, as well as hear the architecture of the music. I love looking at it as though it were a painting or a great building. You need to understand how this particular piece works as an organism, its shape and proportions.
I work from four different editions. I use Henle, Schenker, Arrau, and Schnabel. Henle is my main source, but I enjoy looking at Arrau’s unique fingering and Schnabel’s pedalling. I, of course, love looking at the original manuscripts, but more as an emotional inspiration. I’ve never discovered anything that hasn’t long ago been noticed by people more brilliant than I.
The field of Beethoven interpretation on the keyboard is long and distinguished. Which interpreters do you most admire, and why? Do you feel there is a distinct old school and new school of interpretation? How do you feel about the interpretations of, say, Schnabel? And, indeed, the influence of music theory on performance: mention of Schnabel always makes me think of Schenker, whose graphical analysis always enables one to see the wood from the trees. Do you analyse the scores away from the piano? Do you encourage your pupils to do so?
SM: Wilhelm Kempff is my man. I love his playing. His lucid approach and natural, unhurried way with phrase and form are, to me, unmatched. You listen to him and think, “I can do that” until you realise how difficult it is to reach the simplicity that makes his performances so