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A Consummate Master

February 9, 2003

Richard Goode

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By Sarah Cahill

This is a tough time for pianists who want to hear each of the world-class pianists who are popping up all over the Bay Area, but have to pick and choose. For many of us, though, Richard Goode's recital at Zellerbach on Sunday afternoon was in a different league. Other pianists may be flashier or more superficially dazzling, but one comes away from a Goode concert feeling transformed. Maybe this is what it felt like to hear Artur Schnabel, as if the very cells of one's body have been changed by the sheer transcendence of his music-making.

Goode has often been compared to Schnabel, and another who comes to mind is Goode's own teacher Mieczyslaw Horszowski who, as he got older (still concertizing at age 100) seemed to create his own private inner world into which he drew his listeners. In some sense, Goode has always been that kind of pianist: you can be with several thousand others in the hall and feel that you're having the most intimate experience possible. Goode's recent repertoire overlaps with Horszowski's — Bach, Mozart, Chopin Mazurkas — and he is sounding even more introspective than usual. While other pianists pick encores to show off, Goode chose the Sarabande to Bach's B-flat major Partita, as if to remind us that quiet and simplicity is often more rewarding than Flight of the Bumblebee.

Not that Goode couldn't match anyone's pyrotechnics if he chose to. His brilliantly vitriolic figures in Debussy's Prelude, “Ondine,” for instance, and the way he achieved layers of melodic thirds against accompanying fifths and triplets, put him on equal standing with any virtuoso. But Goode chooses to play Debussy not as virtuosic display pieces but as profound little gems. He began the opening bass phrases of “La Soirée dans Grenade” as if they materialized out of air, and then proceeded seamlessly through” Ondine,” “La sérénade interrompue,” “Des pas sur la neige,” and “Les collines d'Anacapri.” Goode created magical sonic apparitions while proving each of these preludes as structurally sound, in its own way, as a classical sonata.

Architectonic approach

Goode starts with structure and fills in a piece from there. His composerly approach to form sets him apart from most pianists, who might interpret the first movement of Beethoven's Sonata op. 109, for instance, as a series of stops and starts. Goode guides us through Beethoven's harmonic peregrinations and creates an organic form so that every step seems remarkable and yet inevitable. Details matter, but they are incorporated into a cohesive whole. Beethoven's marking of “Gesangvoll, mit innigster Empfindung” in the last movement became vivid through a subtle pressure of the thumb to bring out the alto voice. In Variation 4, he gave an otherworldly aura to the oscillating triads. Even more than usual, this movement was a far-ranging journey after which he carried us home with the theme.

After the concert, there were complaints from a few pianists in the audience that the Allegro maestoso of Mozart's Sonata in A minor, K. 310 was just not maestoso enough. And yet, because of a slightly faster tempo, its streams of sixteenth notes were exceptionally thrilling. The second movement, also slightly faster, became operatic, with phrases extending over a dozen measures or more at a time.

As he had with Debussy, Goode made a continuous link in a set of Chopin pieces: the Impromptu No. 3, four Mazurkas op. 30, and the Polonaise-Fantaisie. Chopin too proved a master architect; even the usually meandering Polonaise-Fantaisie, with its improvisatory excursions, made logical sense. Focusing on structure, however, did not mean sacrificing spontaneity or emotional intensity. A chromatic descent in the Mazurka in D-flat major was poignant, and the Impromptu so fluid it seemed improvised on the spot.

Not many pianists play William Byrd these days, at least in public. Goode opened his concert with two sets of Pavanes and Galliardes from My Ladye Nevell's Booke, and played them with great freedom, not at all with so-called historical correctness. In the process he made these pieces his own, as Horowitz did with Scarlatti. Again, Goode's clear conceptions left plenty of room for spontaneity. Even in the fast Galliardes, inner voices came through as clearly as in a consort of viols. Goode could convince even hardened purists that the modern piano is an acceptable instrument for these pieces.

(Sarah Cahill is a pianist and a music critic for the Express, and hosts a music show on KPFA (94.1 FM) every Friday from 10 am to noon.)

©2003 Sarah Cahill, all rights reserved