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The first recorded English reaction to the work comes in a delightful 1839 anonymous review in The Musical World of a performance given by Ignaz Moscheles:
After a very poor song from Hummel's Matilda — but sung in good style by Mrs H Burnet — we heard, for the first time a grand sonata of four movements by Beethoven, op 106 . . . It would be idle presumption to pronounce on such a sonata at a single hearing; more especially as the attention was frequently distracted by the wonderful difficulties of execution — extravagancies that out-heroded Herod — overcome by the performer. We can however say, that if it be any test of excellence to preserve the sense of hearing, in an almost painful state of activity, from the commencement to the end — making everyone wonder what would come next; and now and then intermixing, though in wild, abstracted, other-world sort of style, genuine beauties of modulation, or melodious phrases, that touched the feelings; — if such be a test of excellence — then there is much to be developed by a full and perfect acquaintance with this work.

Moscheles it was who, despite his formidable technique, halved the speed of the opening allegro by the simple expedient of editing a published version which altered the minim in the tempo indication to a crotchet. For a time, this half-speed became the convention, and it led to a letter of protest to the same magazine in 1857, noting that since the movement required “much fire and animation”, it was “extremely stupid to poke along so slowly”, notwithstanding that, as the writer observed pointedly, “there are, doubtless, innumerable difficulties shirked by taking the time so slow.”

Misunderstandings persisted through the 19th century: Nietzsche in Human, All too Human implied that the sonata required orchestration, describing it as “only an unsatisfactory piano arrangement of a symphony”. Later, Felix Weingartner actually produced an orchestral version. These were elementary errors of taste and understanding, given the evidently pianistic nature of the writing, and the centrality to the entire timbre of the work of the virtuosic demands made on the performer. But from our vantage point 200 years after its composition, it is a mistake to underestimate the difficulties experienced by even the most musical minds in comprehending Beethoven's creation.

Over time, the piece gradually entered the regular repertoire, but it was not till the mid-20th century that more than a handful of players were capable of meeting its demands. Now a performance of the Hammerklavier is no longer a rarity. Conservatory students learn it as a matter of course, and young Turks seem to make light of its difficulties in their first recordings. Contrasting performances have in the last few weeks been given in London by the underrated Aleksandar Madžar and the overrated Evgeny Kissin. Master pianists may be seen playing it by the dozen on YouTube. But the sonata can never be the victim of over-exposure. Like the late quartets, the Diabelli variations and the Missa Solemnis, it is a work the whole of which can never be comprehended at a single sitting, a massif always partially obscured by cloud. It has no musical offspring, and is its own last word.
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