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Appassionata - Beethoven / Katie Mahan

Release Date: 05/01/2020
Label: Steinway & Sons Catalog #: 30161
Composer:  Ludwig van Beethoven Performer:  Katie Mahan Number of Discs: 1

Pianist Katie Mahan presents a program which transports the listener into the inner world of Ludwig van Beethoven. Traveling from his final work for piano backwards to the beloved Appassionata sonata, we hear the expression of his emotions and passions, and witness his transformation as an artist and a man.

Album Credits:
Recording engineer: Rainer Maillard
Editing & Mastering: Rainer Maillard
Produced by Emil Berliner Studios GmbH, Berlin
Recording location: Meistersaal, Berlin
Piano: Steinway Model D (Hamburg)
Cover Photo: Michael Kölblinger

Pianist Katie Mahan is ideally suited to the Steinway & Sons label roster, for
Read more her percussive, highly expressive style perfectly fits the instruments the label's releases are designed to showcase. It is curious that the program of Appassionata is reverse chronological, forcing Mahan in her annotations to go through some contorted prose, but set that aside, and the effect is novel. The giant variation set in the Piano Sonata No. 30 in E major, Op. 109, conventionally comes at the end of Beethoven sonata programs, but here, with a lyrical, rather mystical performance from Mahan, it is introductory to the Piano Sonata No. 23 in F sharp minor, Op. 57 ("Appassionata"). The curtain raiser is the set of six Bagatelles, Op. 126, Beethoven's final works for piano, which are given a detailed, deliberate performance that outshines the overly speedy takes that seem to have become the norm. The "Appassionata" is the best of all: Mahan gives it a sweeping yet inward performance that will make listeners remember why they began to love Beethoven in the first place. A superb exemplification of Steinway's ideals of old-school pianism.

-- AllMusic Guide

"In this year of commemoration of the 250 years of the master of Bonn, [Katie Mahan] explains that she has chosen a journey through Beethoven's inner world: As we travel from his latest piano work to the beloved sonata Appassionata , we hear the expression of his emotions and passions, and witness his transformation as an artist and as a man. In the twenty years between the Bagatelles and the Appassionata, we feel anger turning to humility and fear to serenity. Further, Katie Mahan specifies that, for her,these works embody the essence of Beethoven's life journey. They do not speak only of the turmoil that existed in his inner world but also of the acceptance in the prophecy of his vision of the future.

...It is with the last of the three collections of Bagatelles that this recital opens. Written in 1823/24, Beethoven considered these six pieces to be a “cycle” of miniatures; the richness of the colors and the perfection of tone compete with the structural clarity. We thus go from lyricism to capricious tone, from ornamentation to energy, from delicacy to expressiveness. Katie Mahan shows a lot of sensitivity there, she brings them a density which nourishes intimacy but also charm and depth. She then launches into Sonata no 30 op. 109 with frankness and sobriety, but with a living sense of the rhythms that she does not rush, but lets unfold. The initial Vivace contains a part of a dream that Katie Mahan extends into diction with a declamatory climate before giving to the Prestissimoa proud and energetic character. As Beethoven himself wished, the Andante is very singing and Katie Mahan takes her time again, but not too slowly, to let the different indications (cantabile, temeramente, piacevole ) develop into various expressions. It is in Opus 57, Sonata no 23 published in 1807, that the pianist gives free rein to her temperament, by delivering a committed testimony which seduces the listener with a euphoric serenity that will continue to grow. The tempo is always ample, sometimes stretched, it is a constant; the technique details the timbres with clarity and flexibility, it confers on the Allegro assai a space of combined mystery and tension which are of the order of passion. With a lot of frankness and a great sense of momentum - and we remember that Gershwin's ardor inhabits her - Katie Mahan adopts a conception that suits her perfectly: a sense of drama mixed with nobility of tone. The Andante which follows emphasizes restraint without thickening the line, the capacity for meditation and solemnity. In the Allegro ma non troppo final, the pianist abandons herself with pleasure in this race to the abyss, with great tormented strength.

This CD risks going unnoticed in the abundance (the plethora!) Of engravings from the 250 years... It would be wrong, however, to miss these three scores played by Katie Mahan, who selected them for the sake of sharing the respect she feels for Beethoven along this "backward journey". This is well served by the depth of sound of a round and generous Steinway, on loan from the Steinway House in Berlin, for this recording made in the historic Meistersaal."

-- Jean Lacroix, Crescendo [Originally in French]

"Katie Mahan presents an astonishingly profound album that illustrates her personal view of the big jubilee of the year and brings out some exciting facets on an emotional level represent a worthwhile addition to the popular image of Beethoven."

-- The New Listener [Originally in German]

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, MusicWeb International

“Since feeling is first / he who pays attention to the syntax of things / can never wholly kiss you.” It’s a funny thing, but these words of a 20th century poet kept coming back to me as I listened to this deeply insightful new album by Katie Mahan. Perhaps it had something to do with the care the American pianist has taken to bring out the emotion as well as the sensual beauty of piano works that meant a lot to their creator, Ludwig Van Beethoven. In the process, we travel with Beethoven on his life’s journey, starting with the last six of 24 Bagatelles, Op. 126, and working back to Sonatas No. 30 in E major, Op. 109, and No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57, the famous “Appassionata.”

Perhaps because the word itself implies a mere trifle or something ephemeral, pianists don’t seem to have paid much attention to the Bagatelles until fairly recent times. Yet Beethoven thought enough of them to take time off from the masterworks that crowned his Late Period – the Missa Solemnis and the Ninth Symphony that preceded, and the five last string quartets that followed them, to urge his publisher to bring these pieces out in print.

Mahan sees these short pieces, most of them three to four minutes in duration, as “masterfully self-willed condensations of his late style.” She makes good on her assertion with deeply thoughtful performances. For example, she brings out the different ways the quiet beauty of the inner passages are contrasted with the turmoil of the Presto sections of Bagatelles 4 and 6 in the present selection. In the first instance, cool, flowing oases of lyricism make the greatest contrast with the jazzy syncopated passages that precede them. In the second, Beethoven uses a steady march of quietly confident, playful lyricism to offset the turmoil at the beginning and end.

Mahan reveres Op. 109 for its evocation of “an inner peace which has nothing in common with the extroverted, tumultuous persona of the Appassionata.” The very opening of the first movement gives us the feeling the music has already been going on before we could hear it and that it just floated in gently from some mysterious place. Beethoven is actually setting us up for a more robust, forceful aspect of the sonata, which he springs upon us in the following movement, Prestissimo. The heart of the sonata is a theme and-variations movement, marked in both Italian Andante molto cantabile ed espressivo (walking pace, very songlike and expressive) and in German Gesangvoll, mit innigster Empfindung (full of song, with innermost feeling), just so we don’t miss the point.

In this movement, one has the impression of being privileged to eavesdrop on the composer’s inmost thoughts and feelings, beginning with its slow, unhurried theme. The variations that follow range from quietly expressive to joyously extroverted and from gentle and comforting to vigorous and robust in the chorale-like fugal variation. We arrive at last at a calm, radiant final variation, ending this voyage into Beethoven’s inner world on a note of reassuring simplicity.

As opposed to the pains he has taken with his expressive markings in the slow movement finale of Op. 109, Beethoven merely gives tempo indications in his Sonata in F minor, the “Appassionata,” inviting a variety of valid interpretations. Mahan sees this pathbreaking work as “filled with diabolical mood changes, revealing a man who has finally succumbed to his fate.” She plays this element in the music for all it is worth, from the four-note drum beat in the opening movement that triggers a steady pulse of repeated notes in fast 12/8 time to the absolutely stunning moment when the second movement ends on a fortissimo diminished seventh chord, like a human shriek, and we are off attacca on a pulse-quickening ride upon a magic carpet of six-note gruppetti. In the twenty years separating the “Appassionata” and the Bagatelles, Beethoven underwent a process that Mahan terms “anger transformed into humility and fear transformed into serenity.

-- Phil’s Classical Reviews, Audio Video Club of Atlanta

I enthusiastically praised Mahan's recent Gershwin disc. In that review I mentioned the pianist's sometimes "willful" playing, but it suited Gershwin quite well. Here I am less sure. Beethoven's Appassionata may invite a more freely executed flight of fantasy, though such constant speeding up, slowing down, and dynamic emphasis does tend to call attention to itself. Rubato, yes, if tastefully applied. Here, caught up in the passion of the music it can be too much of a normally good thing. As our editor often points to a work's flow, the seeming absence of it does take its toll on Beethoven. That much said, we leave the opening movement's excess for altogether more success in the rest of the sonata. Mahan achieves a concentrated spirituality in the slow movement and an impressive virtuosity with plenty of forward momentum in the finale. Sonata 30 also shows attention to detail and considerable appreciation for the expressiveness of the music. With so many excellent recordings on my shelves, it would be difficult to prefer any one performance, but I could be satisfied with this. The Bagatelles are now attracting more attention from pianists than in the past. This is the last set, Op. 126—Beethoven's somewhat quixotic, almost improvisatory, writing for the instrument. Mahan is aided by a warm, fuzzy sound for her Steinway D. Her brief, but enthusiastic comments make you want to hear her advocacy for the music.

-- American Record Guide

How wonderful it is to hear Beethoven’s op. 126 bagatelles opening a disc of his later works! The fact that Katie Mahan, a name new to me, plays them so well is also a plus. That they contextualize the rest of her chosen program is even better, and as a whole, the disc is a success.

Mahan’s accompanying note emphasizes the emotional characteristics of her program, also explaining why she presents the pieces in reverse chronological order. She is certainly a player of extremes, many of them wisely judged. Compare the grace and eloquent beauty of her Third Bagatelle with the opening of the Fourth to hear one variable in the equation, but there’s so much more to each phrase, as the brief pianissimo passage at 0:26 demonstrates. Mahan’s is not the shock-and-awe Beethoven of virtuosity run amuck but considered, expertly timed, and witty where demanded. She contrasts the Second Bagatelle’s opening Baroquism and the ensuing Classicality with just the right shades of color and instantaneous changes in articulation.

Mahan’s op. 109 fares slightly less well, as what I take to be an episodic approach affords mixed results. Why the long pause at 0:11 of the first movement? I tend also to prefer a slower build toward the opening theme’s recurrence, here at 1:42, where Mahan works in sudden tempo and dynamic shifts. All that said, I absolutely adore the way she plays the theme from the third movement, wonderfully slow and spaciously, those gorgeous pianissimos in full effect. Yes, the hipsters may scoff, but just luxuriate in the way she enters the first variation! Along similarly rhetorical lines, the opening of her 23rd Sonata bristles with anticipation, glittering trills and all, and does she ever make the most of those descending arpeggios! It may be the final movement of that sonata that surprised me the most. Mahan often leaves the melody bare, reminiscent of the second op. 126 bagatelle’s opening melody.

The more time I spend listening to these interpretations, the fresher they seem. Fans of Wilhelm Kempff’s later traversals or Edwin Fischer’s wonderfully pioneering recordings will be in for a similar journey of discovery and may share in my few quibbles. This is Beethoven played from the inside out, from the gestural to the macrocosmic level. The fact that it’s all programmed backwards, chronologically speaking, demonstrates one aspect of the distillation that makes the 1825 bagatelles the paradigmatic enigma they are. This is a view of the journey from the summit and then via the way back, one whose few missteps are outweighed by leaps and bounds.

-- Fanfare


Katie Mahan's extensive discography includes solo repertoire from Mozart to Bernstein. Her eleventh album Classical Gershwin, a CD + DVD set which includes an innovative music video of Gershwin’s beloved Rhapsody in Blue, was released on the STEINWAY & SONS label in November 2019.

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