Alex Masi

In the Name of Beethoven

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In the Name of Beethoven Review

by James Manheim

This is the third in a series of "In the Name of ..." albums by Venice-born (Italy, not California) metal guitarist Alex Masi; the first two were devoted to Bach and Mozart. The surprise is not that Masi plays classical compositions; he is one of a group of players influenced by Swedish star Yngwie Malmsteen, who often experimented with classical elements in his music. What's unusual is that Masi plays the music pretty straight, and mostly on a guitar that's essentially acoustic, not electric. It's also noteworthy that Beethoven is a composer less often selected for this kind of project. His music contains less chordal figuration than does that of Bach or Mozart, and it's more difficult to reduce to dimensions that can be realized on a single guitar.

Those coming to this album from a classical perspective may be put off by the metal trappings: the black cover, the black pants, the black shirt. Sample it, though -- it's more than listenable. Four pieces are included: the first movements of the Symphony No. 5 and the "Waldstein" piano sonata, the entire "Moonlight" sonata, and the Romance for violin and orchestra in F major, Op. 50. Only the Romance involves an electric guitar; elsewhere, Masi uses a guitar called a Manne Semiacustica, which he describes on his website (on a page headed "Axes of Evil") as "a unique beast [that] sounds like an acoustic guitar crossed genes with a harpsichord." Masi has plenty of technique, handling the big runs in the "Waldstein" cleanly and using the lower register of the guitar effectively in the percussive bass notes that open the sonata. Better still, he has a knack for turning difficulties into virtues, altering things that just won't work on a guitar into simple, distinctive new shapes. The sforzandi in the "Moonlight" finale would be one example, and there are many others in the Symphony No. 5, which he adapts from Franz Liszt's piano transcription. It's only the Romance that doesn't quite come off; Masi, who according to the liner notes recorded the entire album in his own Studio City space, seems to have acquired an orchestral track from the Karlsbad String Academy (conducted by Anton Janacek) and then added his own guitar part. Guitarist and orchestra don't quite get into a groove where they coincide, although the results are interesting enough. (Try a work called Shadow Play by contemporary Canadian composers Syd Robinovitch and Greg Lowe for a beautiful example of how rock electric guitar can be used to lyrical effect in a classical context.) The liner material on the album is sparse, but Masi fills in many of the gaps on his website. This disc should stir up interest outside the small subculture of metal fans who are interested in classical music.

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