BEETHOVEN Piano Sonata No 29. Bagatelles
What a pleasure to report the near-simultaneous release of two magnificent new Hammerklaviers by a pair of internationally recognised artists, Nelson Goerner and Steven Osborne. Both are now in their mid-40s, with careers in full blossom. Their previous distinguished discographies notwithstanding, these discs seem to signal peak periods of their musical and pianistic powers.
Goerner’s Hammerklavier is about flight, variety of shapes, sounds, ideas and precision of communication. Osborne’s is about the big picture, objectivity and a powerful kinaesthesia that could propel rockets into space. These readings are seasoned and expert, yet so distinctly individual that choosing between them will depend on what you listen for in Beethoven.
The opening of Osborne’s Hammerklavier bursts with energy and excitement. If the major structural signposts are amply observed, the race from vista to vista takes on an urgency that, in the sheer joy of velocity, can clip phrases. The justification for this, if one were needed beyond the sheer thrill of it, is Beethoven’s extravagant metronome indication: minim=138, or, in other words, insanely fast. In the Scherzo, marked Vivace assai (extremely lively), one can only marvel at the subtlety of Osborne’s nerve-muscle responses. They allow him such an astonishing degree of rhythmic accuracy achieved with the utmost delicacy of touch. Following these two hyperactive movements, arrival in the hallowed precincts of the Adagio creates a powerful if slightly disorientating impression. Beethoven’s polyphony is finely realised, each chord vying with its successor for beauty of voicing in a flow that is seamless and serene. The finale is a febrile paroxysm that synergises the impetus of the first two movements, seen through a refracting prism of fugal logic and organ-like sonorities. The result is a virtuoso apotheosis as brilliant as molten iron from a blast furnace.
Goerner, too, is capable of exhilarating speed and searing heat. But throughout his Hammerklavier, it is the phrase, in all its infinite variety, that claims attention. Phrases are imbued with life and meaning but, equally importantly, they are separated by breath, lending them intelligibility. In the first movement, pauses are given their full meaningful duration; acceleration and deceleration seem organic and inevitable. Goerner delights in the unexpected. The development (5'28") creates a sea change by introducing a surprise character to the drama. He’s also ever alive to Beethoven’s humour. At the coda (10'48"), every figure on the now crowded stage steals away, each disappearance prepared by an ostentatious flourish of the cape. After skipping through the frolicsome Scherzo, near the end (2'20"), when Beethoven pretends to lose his way between the tonic B flat and B natural, Goerner’s portrayal of the confusion is unaffectedly funny. In contrast to the continuous outpouring of Osborne’s Adagio, Goerner traverses these realms in a spirit of wonderment, discovery and revelation. Everything has meaning. A melody’s shift of register an octave higher becomes a life-defining event. Reluctantly relinquishing these sublime realms, again we encounter the human. The fugue seems the animated conversation of three highly articulate, voluble individuals, occasionally disputatious, always fascinating. You can follow their every word. But don’t let their discourse draw you too near. Sparks occasionally fly. If ever there were an effortless Hammerklavier finale, this is it.
Osborne rounds out his disc with Op 106’s older siblings, the A major and E minor Sonatas in prevailingly lyrical readings. Op 90 is quite remarkable, proportionate and never over-played. Goerner concludes his with one of the more convincing sets of Op 126 Bagatelles you’re likely to come across. E flat major (Op 126 No 6) has never made so much sense.
Both discs are expertly recorded and reproduce rich, fully dimensional sound. Each may be considered representative of the current ethos framing Beethoven performance on the modern piano. Savour the riches!