This is wonderful, and not the first time I have been very impressed by Nelson Goerner's pianism. For example, see my review of his Chopin Preludes in the last issue. I wrote, "Goerner is a pianist whose virtuosity can excite you without making you feel that he is superimposing his ego on the music." I feel the same way about this release, which was recorded in May 2015 in Berlin's Teldex Studio.
The thing that strikes me about Goerner's "Hammerklavier" is that he makes it sound like it was composed for the piano. Now, that is a strange statement, isn't it, particularly given this sonata's subtitle? What I mean is that there is not a moment of awkwardness in this reading, no point at which one thinks, "Well, Beethoven's late piano music wasn't written with the performer in mind." I can't think of a pianist who sounds less challenged by this music's technical demands. That gives Goerner plenty of room in which to spread out and have fun with the music—cosmic fun, that is. One expects the first movement to be titanic—and it is—but do you expect it to be playful? It is that as well; try the movement's last page, where the music winds down with a sequence of B♭-Major chords in the right hand. The left hand, however, repeatedly couples those chords with an "incorrect" G♭, and that never made an impression on me until Goerner came along. It's funny and a little grotesque. Funny as well are the nervous four-note figures that dominate the outer sections of the scherzo. Beethoven marks a crescendo for the first two and a decrescendo for the last two, and that's difficult, but somehow Goerner does it, and I've never realized, until how, how the music actually seems to be panting. Goerner's legato creates a gorgeous effect in the third movement, where even the densest chords succeed each other with the ultimate smoothness. Goerner finds all of the proto-Romantic pathos in this music—at times, it seems to anticipate Chopin—but there is no easy sentimentality. I think he starts the fugue in the last movement a little too loudly, but apart from that, the movement is a proudly masculine display of Beethoven's power, both physical and intellectual.
Despite being called bagatelles, the six pieces in op. 126 are not trifles. Goerner plays them for what they are: six Petri dishes in the incubator of Beethoven's imagination—experimental and not expendable.
There are plenty of good "Hammerklavier"s out there —recordings by Brendel and Pollini, for example — but if you love this sonata, Goerner's often explosive exploration of the music's substance has much to commend it.