Best to start at the end of the disc with the Opus 90 Sonata and then play 101, both lead to the mighty Hammerklavier; chronological too. The E-minor work finds Steven Osborne exploiting a range of dynamics and contrasts, the first movement intensely private and demonstrably public, the second easeful in its lyrical flow and touching expression, and sensitively wound down. With the A-major example, Osborne lets Beethoven’s distillation of means speak for itself, at once economic and rarefied yet universal, such intimacy then disturbed by the march-based second movement that enjoys softer contours to offset the brusque ones. Something of an interlude, the brief if intense next movement, marked Langsam und sehnsuchtsvoll is spellbinding, and following that the Finale emerges as an exhilarating sunrise; we just had the song, now here is the dance.
At just under ten minutes, the opening movement of the Hammerklavier suggests a recklessly fast tempo (to accommodate the metronome marking that some pianists dismiss as dubious) or the lack of the exposition repeat or an error in Hyperion’s annotation. None of these, for although Osborne drives the music along his playing is always poised and also yielding, avoiding glibness. Perhaps some accents are on the too-strong side, maybe there is the odd skittish moment, but there is a freshness and glitter that is appealing and with plenty of meat that recognises the music’s red-bloodedness. The Scherzo is nifty and played nimbly, albeit there is greater wit than is found here. The Adagio is heavenly in its spacious unfolding, not as expansive as say John Lill or (the wisdom of) Solomon and certainly not as restless as some have made it. This is grande espressione without indulgence or calculation, a meditation that suggests Osborne was receiving the ink-still-wet pages from the composer. As for the fugal fireworks of the Finale, Osborne ensures that this piano-busting and finger-breaking music remains a model of clarity and dynamism … with unstoppable momentum.