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Performances of the Hammerklavier Sonata seem defined by which of the 14 declamatory opening chords you poise the blunderbuss upon. There’s a big choice of emphases that define almost your entire vision. Moreover, Beethoven, while exploiting the latest robust Broadwood pianoforte, also gives a notoriously rapid metronome marking of equally robust daring; since the metronome was even more the latest gadget, a tradition emerged that suspects that the composer hadn’t got the hang of it and misread too fast a speed. It is a tradition that has survived Schnabel’s quip that Beethoven may have been deaf but he wasn’t blind.

All of which preamble to introduce two recent recordings: Stephen Osborne (Hyperion) and Nelson Goerner (Alpha). Happily, they occupy the two fundamentally opposite camps – Goerner chosing the monumental while Osborne goes for momentum. I have been declared by the editor of IP himself to be Schnabel partisan, but I would not be without either of these intricate and passionate newcomers.

Goerner is as fabulous as you can have from the monumental school, epitomised by Eschenbach’s extremes nearly 40 years ago. He goes inside the music with a sensual introspection that stands up to the buffeting that much of Beethoven’s writing demands. It is a fascinating and deeply felt journey, rich in excited detail and with a sweep that exploits the many ritardando – a tempo progressions. As with the weird but compelling reading by Yvonne Loriod, he debates the issues with himself, searching, finding, welcoming or rejecting; and he has a curiously effective plangent delivery of falling phrases together with a talent for a sort of nocturnal impishness when, for instance, Beethoven mimics a passage quietly. The sense of exploration is at best – as here – what exponents of the monumental school have going for them.

Meanwhile, Steven Osborne has decided to go for it – and he does just that. Frenzy is counterpoised with flourish; his rocking phrases, especially in the third movement, which he does not rush, are more mesmerising and cradle-like in their to-and-fro than you’ll find anywhere else, like a tidal lapping over something that was washed before, presaging the crash to come. If you go for the hell-for-leather ludicrous- Ludwig metronome school, what makes Schnabel so staggering in the outer movements is the sense that he seems at the absolute windy cliff-edge of his technique, and the splashes seem more truly Beethovenian than mere perfection. Richter, only ever live, gives us that edge; Osborne’s frenzy is not quite so frantic, but nonetheless has an attractively paradoxical finesse about it.

His disc includes the Sonatas Op 90, 101 and 106, and the booklet essay suggests sequential creative links between them that we normally associate with the tighter trilogy of 109/110/111; annoyingly the disc then has them in the reverse order. Goerner’s disc adds only the Bagatelles Op 126. To get a real measure of the Hammerklavier, I would take both recordings: stand on that cliff-edge, be wind-swept, and gaze in awe, inwardly and out, at an endless ocean of the spirit.

JONATHAN BROWN Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Piano International, 2016 - ©Rhinegold Publishing