Piano professor emeritus receives rave review for Beethoven CDs

January 26, 2016

Piano professor emeritus Steven Smith's monumental CD recording project titled "Piano Masterworks of Beethoven" has received a laudatory review by "American Record Guide," the country's oldest and most prestigious classical music review magazine. 

The 11-CD set includes all 32 Beethoven sonatas and the Diabelli Variations, as well as Bagatelles Op. 126, and Rondos Op. 51. All were recorded during live performances at Penn State between 2009 and 2012.

Alan Becker's review is below.

AMERICAN RECORD GUIDE, January-February 2016. Reviewed by Alan Becker

Steven Herbert Smith, Sound Waves [11 CDs], 788 minutes

Smith turns out to be a true artist, capable of helpful interpretations and fully worthy of comparison with many of today’s outstanding performers.

Smith’s traversal begins promisingly with strong performances of the early sonatas. … Early on it becomes obvious that Smith will be well able to handle the technical challenges ahead. He is long associated with academia, but there is no hint of intellect over heart… Smith can also wow his listeners when he wants to, as amply demonstrated in the ‘Presto’ from Sonata 6 [Op. 10/2], which rides a demon steed to its conclusion. Sonata 5 [Op.10/1] is particularly felicitous with just the right amount of wit and whimsy. Smith seems to be having a good deal of fun with the rhythmic bends and turns of the music and squeezes out all the juices he can. The Prestissimo finale is treated in a thoroughly virtuosic manner. With Sonata 3 [Op.2/3] ... Adagio is especially beautiful and never seems pushed for effect. Having myself struggled with the finale in the past, I fully appreciate the grace and skill this artist brings to the music while always sounding natural and unforced. …. Sonata 7 [Op. 10/3] is of sturdier stuff and is given one of the finest performances in the set. Tonal gradations are just about perfect, and the singing line of the Adagio is as lovely as I have heard. Above all, the music unfolds with an ease and naturalness that gets to the core of Beethoven’s argument.

Following the remaining early sonatas, in readings far beyond merely satisfactory, we enter the world described here as “the romantic and heroic Beethoven”. The two sonatas of Op. 27 show compositional advances and an imaginative wildness that was to mark most of the composer’s efforts in the future. … Smith manages these sharp contrasts with spirit and a sense that all is absolutely correct as the printed page turns into a living, breathing entity. …. Sonata 21 [Op.53], Waldstein, continues a rapid ascent to the world of jawdropping, awe-inspiring virtuosity. It is a driven performance, but one allowing for sensitivity as well. The octave glissandos toward the close of the last movement are very well executed. … With Sonata 26, Les Adieux[Op.81a], the competition is fierce, as it is in Sonata 23, Appassionata [Op.57]. I would not go so far as to call these renditions unparalleled, but they do belong with the most satisfying to be heard on record. ….what is heard here is truly excellent and often thrilling playing.

[In Op.101]  Smith is totally in sympathy with the complexities of the final and longest movement, and its contrapuntal strands are unfolded with clarity and expression. Nos. 30 and 31 [Opp.109, 110] are the most often performed and recorded of the late sonatas. Smith excels in both and makes us fully appreciate the wondrous accomplishment of a composer able to transcend [deafness].  The ‘Andante molto cantabile ed espressivo’ final movement of 30 is a thing of rare and concentrated beauty—its complex trills exquisitely played. Once again, the complex of tempo changes in the final movement of 31 is the both composer and pianist at their most intimate and expressive. These are certainly among the best performances in a set of many wonders. Sonata 29 [Op.106], Hammerklavier, is considered by many the pinnacle of Beethoven’s sonata creation. … the long Adagio sostenuto is the very core of the sonata and must maintain a sort of rarefied beauty and restrained intellectuality at the same time. The playing is unerringly right for this music. Beethoven’s final cryptic sonata [Op.111] is once again fascinated with the fugue, and Smith embraces the music with arresting gutsiness. [In the Diabelli Variations, the] final fugue is one of the most impressive performances I have heard. The remaining variation sets are all delivered with stunning attention to contrast and brilliance.

The Op. 51 Rondos and Op. 126 Bagatelles further enhance the desirability of the album. … this is a set to place beside the others I have mentioned (Ashkenazy, Brautigam, Brendel, Gilels, Goode, kempff, Schnabel). If you have not heard of Steven Smith, it is high time you did. At budget price the set is a steal.

  • Steven Smith CD cover
    IMAGE: Penn State
Last Updated January 27, 2016