In one corner was Gary Goldschneider, a hometown boy with a crazy dream. In the other was Ludwig van Beethoven, heavyweight champ of the world.

At 10:06 on Saturday morning, Goldschneider sat down at a nine-foot Steinway grand wedged between two escalators in the middle of a cavernous shopping mall, and began playing Beethoven's Sonata in G minor, Op. 49, No. 1. The first note was a quick right thumb to an exposed "d." It was the opening jab in an epic attempt to play all 32 of Beethoven's piano sonatas in a single sitting--as far as anyone knows, the longest Beethoven concert in history.

"I believe I am being consciously and spiritually guided to play these sonatas all together around the world and bring Beethoven to the public," said Goldschneider, a bearded, slight and balding fellow, prematurely white-haired at 44. His gleaming gaze through granny glasses recalls an amiably mad monk, while his talk of Beethoven strays to such mystical matters as numerology, astrology, macrobiotics and out-of-body projection. "There are voices that speak to me all the time. They're part of the whole challenge of my life: how to become a person."

Taking only briefs breaks--to sip fruit juice and Perrier water, or to nosh on the chicken sandwiches brought by his mother Rose--Goldschneider didn't stop playing until 10:10 on Saturday night, and faced much of the music in excruciating pain.

"I'm learning a lot about the physical part of Beethoven," he mused during a respite, before he was to tackle the daunting "Hammerklavier," the 29th sonata on the program, which presented the pieces in the order Beethoven composed them in. He grimaced as a masseuse' worked on his sprained right wrist. "Beethoven had his deafness and other troubles. But, you know, I had polio when I was 5. And 28 years later, when I was 33, I was in a head-on crash, and they had to haul me out with a wrecker. I have come close to death on several occasions. So I think I can handle this."

There he was, before some 5,000 shoppers, tourists and music lovers--the Rocky Balboa of the keyboard.

The concert was set at The Bourse, a renovated Victorian marvel--once a commodities exchange--with vaulting atriums, ferny boutiques and fast-food bistros where listeners, said a Bourse press release, would "be able to enjoy the concert from tables set along wrought-iron railings, overlooking Corinthian columns and architectural splendors as intricate as the master's music itself."

The piano, on a stage festooned by daisy pots, was placed in such a way that Goldschneider, a cocktail pianist during the week, faced the Cacharel shirt shop, with his back to the Roland Pierre shoe store, while a sign saying "Country Sportsman" dangled above his head. A notice next to the stage informed curious shoppers: "The Bourse Presents 'A Beethoven Playathon.' All 32 Sonatas in the World's Longest Beethoven Concert." There was space to identify the "Concerto Now Being Performed." The word "concerto" was covered after Goldschneider complained.

Beethoven was there in the form of two massive music books, the pages majestically marked and dog-eared, the battle-scarred bindings held together by duct tape: the central theme of Goldschneider's life since he dropped out of his third year of Yale Medical School 20 years ago--much to his parents' horror--and wandered through Europe and other realms in a quest for musical meaning.

Goldschneider wore an ascetic ensemble of flowing white tunic, drawstring trousers, sandals--and a necklace sporting a killer whale's tooth. "My totem animal is the killer whale," he said. "I never take it off. My other totem animal is the guinea pig."

There to cheer him on were all seven of his children, his current wife Antoinette and a former one, Daphne, (a second ex-wife didn't come), scores of friends, a former girlfriend or two, a pack of Beethoven fans following along with their own scores, his New York manager Erwin Frankel, his longtime piano teacher Agi Jambor, his favorite childhood coach from the Jewish Basketball League of Philadelphia summer camp, and his 70-year-old parents, Sam and Rose Goldschneider.

"Gary's our only child," said Rose. "When he was a baby, I used to recite poetry to him. Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth. It turned out he had a fantastic memory. When he was only 2, he could recite not just the words, but with the expression and the feeling. So they put him on the 'Horn and Hardart Children's Hour' on the radio. Did you ever hear of that?"

"One thing I want to emphasize," said Sam, a retired accounting teacher, "is Gary's scholastic achievements. When he was in junior high school, he won the American Legion Medal, which --"

"Which was the same medal my husband won 20 years earlier," Rose chimed in and Sam frowned. "Rosie, will you please let me tell a story?"

"Yes, sweetheart."

Goldschneider mounted the stage with a slight limp, a vestige of his bout with polio. When he played, his temples bulged and he shook his head from side to side, the rakish grin recalling the smile of an aerobatic pilot in a biplane. With his 11-year-old son Isak and 8-year-old daughter Sarah spelling each other at page-turning duties, Goldschneider performed the first nine sonatas without a break.

He started tentatively, warmed up a bit and played with more authority, hands whacking at the keyboard for careening runs of octaves. Beethoven took it on the chin here and there, but it was nothing serious, and mainly there was Goldschneider's irrepressible exuberance. The music flew up the vaulted atrium, bouncing here and there against a railing and mixing with the hubbub of commerce. "The noise is driving me crazy," said Goldschneider's manager, Erwin Frankel.

At the Bourse Nut Parlor a floor above the piano, a cardboard, motorized figure of George Burns seemed to flick its cigar in time to the music. A floor higher, at a restaurant called the Saladalley, waitress McTague Miller was loudly telling a couple of friends how much she had enjoyed a Joan Armatrading show of the night before.

"Oh, I think this is pretty good," she said when a visitor interrupted her, and for a moment regarded the ant-like Goldschneider toiling far below. "At least compared to the usual cruddy entertainment they put in here. Usually, they get a bunch of 8-year-olds from New Jersey singing disco tunes in terry-cloth go-go outfits."

Goldschneider played on, plunging past the "Pathe'tique," through the gauzy Moonlight, and toward the earth-shaking "Waldstein." The trouble began with the 18th piece, the Sonata in G major, Op. 31, No. 1. The muscles of his right hand from pinky to heel were starting to ache. The filigreed clock on the wall said 3:26. Seven hours to go. Goldschneider fretted.

"I think I shook hands with somebody earlier that I shouldn't have shaken hands with," he said, sitting behind the piano, out of public view. "Also, I've expended too much energy just to get heard through this great big dead space. I'm losing my hand. I think it's a tendon."

The Bourse people located a masseuse in the shopping mall's Nautilus Fitness Center and brought her in for some emergency first aid. Soon she was rubbing and probing Goldschneider's arms, shoulders and hands after every sonata.

"Oh god," he groaned after coming off the stage from playing the "Les Adieux" sonata. The awesome "Hammerklavier," sporting its 389-measure fugual finale, loomed only three sonatas distant. "I don't know about the 'Hammerklavier.' I would sooner die than cut it. If I did cut it, I know that my karma would be so intense that I would come back as a cockroach."

At 7:55, before some 200 intent listeners, Goldschneider took the stage to play the great four-movement Sonata in B flat major, Op. 109. He told the audience about his damaged hand. "And this is most difficult piece of piano music ever written," he added. "I guess we'll see how it goes."

He lunged bravely into the first movement, taking the offensive with dazzling fingerwork and bludgeoning chords. The adagio sostenuto was a dream, the final fugue a miracle. Goldschneider was playing with pain. "There's been a lot of pain in my life." he'd said. A thrashing chord--and a standing ovation. Then he was moved to make a speech.

"You know, I think I'd just like to say that you must grow up and take responsibility for everything you do," Goldschneider said. "I'm sure my parents will be happy to hear me say that."

He polished off the last three sonatas, and played Fu r Elise as an encore. Another ovation, his parents, wives and kids hugged him, and admirers crowded around.

"I feel great," he exulted. "I feel fulfilled. I feel a very close rapport with the audience. I went the distance, as they say."