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
profound. And his shimmering sound is so beautiful.
I also love Claudio Arrau and Anton Kuerti. I think Schnabel is interesting; eratic, but so vibrant. His rhythmic pulse really grabs me. There have been so many great ones and we continue to have great Beethoven interpreters among us. I don’t think there are particular old and new schools. What people tend to think of as “New School” is a type of pianist who can stun you with accuracy, but falls short of making music. These people have always existed. Its just that the uninteresting pianists of the past are now forgotten while the present lot is still around.
Listen to Schiff, Goode, Uchida, and people of that caliber and I think we can all agree that meaningful playing is very much alive.
I love Furtwaenler. In orchestral playing, the trend is away from his style that tends to emphasise the majesty of the music. The use of period instruments has given us a leaner, crisper Beethoven that, in the hands of a great man like John Eliot Gardiner, sounds fresh and exciting. Ironically, that style is more true to what Beethoven heard. The problem is that in the hands of a lesser light the music sounds rushed and insignificant. I heard a performance of the Third Symphony at the Proms in London a few seasons ago that made the first movement sound jolly and the funeral march, a brisk jog. The music was lost, thrown away. It wasn’t exciting. The jagged rhythmic vibrancy was gone. I understand that I am seduced by the majesty of Beethoven and have to work to fill out my interpretations with the idea that he was, after all, all a living, breathing man, but I don’t respond when the magnificence is lost completely.
I mentioned earlier the idea of making a “board” out of the music to look at the whole. I am always trying to pass that along to my students. We always look at the scores away from the piano. Looking at the score away from the piano reveals so much about its architecture. Playing it at the keyboard the illuminates sounds and colors by experimentation.
CC: You have been blessed with fine recordings – what techniques did you use to get the piano sound you wanted? And were they done in large takes or smaller ones? How much patching is done?The relationship of pianist to producer is generally considered an important one. Did you find that?
SM: I work Joe Patrych, my friend for thirty five years, as recording engineer and producer. Joe really knows more about the piano than any human I’ve come in contact with. He loves the piano and knows how to translate its sound gloriously in a recording. I trust his ear and his taste. I’m happy you like his work.
We work in complete takes. I usually make three or four complete takes of each movement and we work from there. First we select the take we think is best. Then we work within sections to find the versions that seem the most alive, the most interesting, always with an ear on keeping a line, making it work. Naturally, finger mistakes are edited out, but editing is so much more about creating a performance than correcting mistakes. We do very little patching. I would choose to leave in a section that is a bit technically uneven over replacing it with a a pristine one that says
It’s not a live performance. You play smaller, more subtly for a microphone than you do in a hall where you need to exaggerate to have things “read,” as an actor would say. Listening to early recordings of popular singers is interesting. Singers like Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire understood the microphone. Their recordings sound fresh, whereas singers who “let it rip” as they would in a hall sound very dated.
CC: Regarding complete Beethoven Sonata cycles, can I please ask you about ordering?. Some pianists prefer a chronological approach. What do you think if that idea? What were you trying to achieve in each of your recitals? (And does each disc follow every recital in its progaramming?)
SM: I like the chronological approach for box sets, but as I have been doing recitals as I record, I’ve tried to group them into programs that make sense. The recordings correspond to the performances. I’ve tried to keep the opus numbers together because I feel that the sonatas of any particular opus work together as a larger form, even if just in mood. After keeping those sonatas together I grouped the others into programs that worked together well taking period variety, key relationships and even relative popularity into account. On Volume 2 I liked the motivic similarities between Op. 110 and Op. 14 No.1. There are other such examples in future volumes
CC: You have a terrific sense of line (I am thinking of particularly the cantabile in Op. 13.ii). Is this almost vocal sense of line how you experience it? (many pianists claim to experience the slow movements of Mozart piano sonatas as arias in instrumental guise, for example). Again, Op. 101’s first movement is blessed with miraculously singing lines …
SM: Thank you. Music has to sing and we are challenged in that regard by the nature of the piano itself. Its an instrument that is really incapable of producing a true legato. The pianist has to be a bit of a magician to give the illusion of legato, of a singing line where one note melts into another and lines come to life. Sound must produced with a relaxed arm and the line must make rhythmic sense to come alive. Pacing is paramount. Balance between the hands and hearing contrapuntally make music live.
CC: You seem to be able to attune yourself to the various personas of Beethoven, a particularly tricky feat in the late sonatas with their mix of the transcendent with gruff humor. Do you agree with the traditionalist sectionalizing of Beethoven’s output into Early, Middle and Late periods? How do you feel your playing changes between the various sonatas of each ‘period’?
SM: I love to play the early sonatas. They are the work of a young, virile man who was out to impress. They may not be as true to the classical ideal as Mozart and Haydn, but they are after something that was completely new and revolutionary. The and profound slow movements are not just foreshadowings of the later Beethoven, but deeply profound masterpieces. Now, I have
no objection to the general “Early, Middle (a and b) and Late” groupings of the sonatas into, but I do strongly disagree with the notion that the late Beethoven is the beginning of the romantic period. I think that throughout his life he got closer and closer to the Classical ideal and his genius sought new and glorious ways to express his resolution.
The last sonatas are a challenge. It is a challenge to enter into a world and ability that far exceeds your own. How does one do justice to these great pieces? A great piece of music is greater than it can be played. I guess the key is to know the score, have reverence for it, but not be overwhelmed by it. Let that greatness flow through you. Relax and listen. Play what you hear. By association you can become great. Why play it if you’re not ready to try?
There is also a distinct Schubertian feel to the “Pastoral” sonata (Op. 28) and, perhaps, the first movement of Op. 14/2, where lyricism seems to be foregrounded. Was that deliberate? Do you perform Schubert much? What do you feel about Schubert’s way with sonata form in comparison with Beethoven’s? Do you see these sonatas (and others) as paving the way for Schubert’s handling of the sonata?
SM: I love Schubert and I feel a great affinity with his music. When I have completed the Beethoven series I plan to start a Schubert project. His music is so lyrical, but very complicated form a psychological standpoint. I find him fascinating.
I think the lyricism of Op. 28 and 14 No. 2 is a very important side of Beethoven. The lyrical aspect of his music is regrettably undervalued. I like to play the opening of Op. 28 as if it were singing the world into existence. Some think I play it too slowly. I disagree.
Back to Schubert. I think pieces like Op. 28, opus 31, no 1 and the late sonatas of course had profound influence on him. His way with the sonata was completely different from Beethoven’s. Schubert had the sound Beethoven’s music in his ear, but Schubert was writing forms that were were more nineteenth century.
I take it you are using a Steinway for the entire series, as both of the first two volumes are played on one? Yet you mention you like Bösendorfers in your previous interview. Was this because you find the sound of a Steinway more attuned, or flexible, for Beethoven? Is it a counterpoint thing (I notice how clean your lines are in the first movement of Op. 101, for example).
SM: I wish I had a more interesting answer to this very good question. I use the Hamburg Steinway that is in Patrych Studio. I do love that piano. It has a wonderful bright sound and great clarity. American Steinways are impressive in their deep sound, but they tend to be a bit muddy; more suited to Rachmaninov (music in which I have little interest) than Beethoven or Schubert. I do love Bosendorfer pianos. I think in general I tend to prefer European pianos.
CC: Inevitably (I would hope), as you are putting down a complete sonata cycle, the concertos must follow? Or will you be interspersing them? And with which orchestra and conductor?
SM: Thank you for that, but, alas, nobody is beating down my door to have me play the concertos. I do know them all five, by the way, if anyone is interested.
CC: What about performing activities? Are you touring the sonatas? Internationally? (and, for me … do you ever play in the UK – I ask because I am based in London!)
SM: I have played all over the world, but, sadly, never in the UK. That’s a sad thing for me as I absolutely love your country, have many friends there, and am married to a woman who lived there for many years. We visit as often as a we can, but it’s always a pleasure trip. We fantasize about living there. By the way, I’m a big of a British pianist named Imogen Cooper. I love her Schubert.