Steven Osborne performs (31 March-2 April 2015) the three Beethoven sonatas of the 1810 period, conceived as a trilogy—a group that forms its own arch of increasing length and difficulty—moving from a relatively compressed work in the e minor Sonata to one of the most epically taxing of sonatas in the keyboard repertory. Osborne plays the three sonatas in reverse order, beginning with the daunting 1819 Hammerklavier Sonata, given a remarkably fresh and energetic gloss in this rendition. If the 'official' metronome marking for the opening movement stands at half note=138, then even Osborne’s fluid dexterity cannot maintain the speed beyond the introductory bars; and he need not for the grand, virtuosic effect of the movement’s remainder.
Osborne’s fleet approach seems to make the often audacious modulations that much more pronounced, as in the exposition’s second half in G Major. The development section has its own wandering momentum, as far afield as B Major. The exotic leaps and tone clusters—conjunct and disjunct—proffer some sense of Beethoven’s improvisatory nature, a groping, visionary process that announces itself distinctly in the f-sharp minor Adagio sostenuto. Osborne’s instrumental patina on the Steinway at Wyastone Estate—enhanced by recording producer Andrew Keener—emerges as particularly bright, pearly, without having sacrificed warmth for piercing sonority. The last movement inherits Osborne’s 'experimental' sensibility, beginning Largo, sans bar lines and askew chords, in a space that seems like harmonic limbo. After the potent fortissimo, the Fuga a tre voci, con alcune licenze begins, a testament to Beethoven’s absorption of virtually every contrapuntal procedure. Osborne has become too rapt in his realization to allow any mere 'academic' principle to override his uncanny momentum. The scales, trills, and permutations of the theme proceed out of some illumined cauldron, a combination of cornucopia and witches’ brew.
Beethoven conceived his 1816 Sonata in A Major as deliberately challenging to the performer. Already, Beethoven’s penchant for polyphony makes itself manifest. At various points in the music, the example of Bach—either in the form of his preludes, fugues, or his canons—reigns. Despite Beethoven’s insistence on German tempo indications, Osborne provides an Italianate arioso quality to the opening movement, lulling its concise sonata-form into a lyrical meditation. The F Major Vivace alla marcia has the distinctive vitality that likely translates directly into the second movement of Robert Schumann’s Op 17 Fantasia. The trio—in canon form—proves equally pearly and supple before the da capo sweeps us into its martial figures. The slow movement ostensibly wants to be a meditation in a minor, but it relinquishes the soft pedal for an aggressive Allegro with—after a direct quote from the opening movement—expansive ambitions, including a central fugato. The span of spirited expression embraces a low E, new to the ever-evolving keyboard of Beethoven’s time. Osborne’s concluding chords prove decisive.
The Sonata in e minor of 1814 remained a challenge to Artur Schnabel, who claimed only near the end of his life to have penetrated its surface lyricism, perhaps beholden to the spirit of Schubert. Voices from competing registers advocate their runs and arias in sonata-form at first, although the first movement omits any repeat of the exposition material. A kind of nervous intimacy permeates Osborne’s performance, though 'the soft answer turneth away wrath.' The lovely second movement exploits a tender E Major in sonata-rondo, form allowing Osborne to sing most fervently; and only at the coda does the music transcend its limits in gently exhilarated figures.