Pianist Richard Goode: Adventures in Beethoven

Niels Swinkels on April 2, 2013
Richard Goode
Richard Goode

Pianist Richard Goode has been described as a nonspecialist, in the sense that he’s a “virtuoso soloist, a compelling recitalist, a committed chamber music performer and a sensitive accompanist,” all in one. Yet in every one of those fields, Goode (b. New York, 1943) has built a solid reputation as an interpreter of middle-European classical piano repertoire, and he has even been called a Beethoven specialist.

Goode was the first American-born pianist to record a complete cycle of Beethoven’s piano sonatas (on the Nonesuch label). “Claude Frank, who was my teacher at one point, recorded them earlier, but he was born in Germany [in 1925] and later became an American citizen,” he says.

On April 6, Goode performs Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas (No. 30, Op. 109; No. 31, Op. 110; and No. 32, Op. 111), together with six of the 11 Bagatelles from Op. 119, in a concert for Chamber Music San Francisco at Herbst Theatre.

In a wide-ranging conversation with SFCV, via phone from his home in New York, Goode spoke at length and in great detail about his relationship with Ludwig van Beethoven, the composer who has been central to his life as an artist and a musician, and about his legendary late sonatas, meanwhile sharing anecdotes about other famous pianists.

Can I start by challenging you with a quote about these late sonatas? I forgot where I found it …

OK. [sounds intrigued]

Beethoven’s last three sonatas are traditionally considered among the sacred cows of the keyboard repertoire, to which even experienced pianists generally give a wide berth until they believe they have acquired the necessary maturity. So, Mr. Goode, are you mature enough to handle these sonatas?

[Laughs, then quips:] I really object to the “cow” part. “Sacred cow” really gives the wrong connotation. Whether I am mature enough? I am certainly old enough, but I quite disagree with the characterization. I think that pianists should start thinking about these pieces, and playing them — not necessarily in public — when they are quite young. Anything that you plant in your body and soul early enough will probably bear fruit later on.

How long have you lived with these three sonatas?

I think that I learnt the first one when I was about 14. That was Op. 110. Then came 109 and 111. They were my favorite of Beethoven’s piano pieces, and still are, even though I later developed a greater taste for some of the earlier sonatas.

Was there an immediate fascination?

There was immediate fascination, and attraction. These pieces bring you in, in many different ways. On a superficial level, they are melodically extremely beautiful. The theme of the variations in Op. 109 is one of the most beautiful variation-themes ever written. But most of all, they are pieces of transformation. They follow a process of change and continued evolution which is greater than in earlier sonatas.

Anything that you plant in your body and soul early enough will probably bear fruit later on.

The most obvious example is Op. 110, which has a kind of narrative progression, from the relative calm and serenity of the opening movement, to the brusque and almost savage second movement, which seems to take place in a tavern. Part 3, with its aria and fugue, certainly gives a feeling of transformation — from suffering to a kind of exultation at the end.

What very much appealed to me when I was young was this poetic narrative of coming from suffering into the light. The other thing was the density and the compression of these pieces. These Beethoven sonatas incorporate more contrapuntal interest and complexity than any of his previous pieces. The late style in general is more polyphonic, more concerned with fugue, and more interested with putting a lot of music in a very small space.

Do you have any idea how often you have performed these sonatas?

That is very hard to say; I don’t have a count [laughs]. The Op. 110 I have played most often, maybe one hundred times. Then 109, followed closely by 111. I have never, though, played them all together.

What very much appealed to me when I was young was this poetic narrative of coming from suffering into the light.

Never before this tour?

Talking about sacred cows: One of the “traditions” that I have avoided is playing the three together. I don’t think they are necessarily meant to be played together. Of course, if you bring them together, you will notice interesting relationships and compositional links. But I have always played them separately. And now, I have chosen to interpose six of the [11] late Bagatelles from Op. 119, as a kind of sorbet. I just wanted a certain note of humor.

Are you a mold breaker?

No, I am certainly not a mold breaker. As far as my repertoire goes, I am, for better or worse, quite traditional, and many of the pieces I love most are the same pieces that many people love most.

The humorous aspect of Beethoven is often underappreciated because of his image as a “heroic creator.” That heroic side is maybe less close to me than some of the more intimate, and even the crazier, things.

These bagatelles are also an interesting reflection of Beethoven’s transformative process. You get an indication of what Beethoven does with a little motif — exactly what he is doing in the sonatas on a grander scale: transforming it, speeding it up, slowing it down. It is like a little peek into the composer’s studio.

When you play Beethoven’s very earliest sonatas, you can feel that the composer is completely in control of his means.

What fascinates you about Beethoven? Did you choose him, or did he choose you?

Any composer that you love, chooses you. It is not a choice that you can make consciously. Beethoven has always been a central composer for me. One reason is that I grew up with him. Some of the first pieces I remember playing were by Beethoven; and I started with the “Pathétique” very early. But it was the tremendous human force of Beethoven, the emotional and human meaning of his music, and that immense formal power. Practically everything I ever played of Beethoven, and most everything I heard, impressed me with its enormous strength and rightness of proportion. No matter what the content.

Any favorites among the sonatas?

The first one that was really indicative of Beethoven’s late style is [No. 28] Op. 101, still one of my very favorite pieces. And then, of course, the Hammerklavier [Op. 106], which is the most adventurous of them all — and certainly the most vicious. This sonata was a piece that sort of “broke the dam”; Beethoven attempted something more ambitious than he had yet done, with greater contrast and greater demands for the pianist. It is a really radical composition.

Certain pieces from the middle period give me somewhat of a problem. There are early sonatas that I love more than middle sonatas like the “Waldstein” [No. 21] or the “Appassionata” [No. 23], quite possibly because they are played too much, by every single pianist. There is a reason for that, but I gravitate towards other pieces.

One thing you learn when you play the complete sonatas is how neglected the early ones are. Beethoven was a composer who showed mastery from the very beginning. When you play the very earliest sonatas, you can feel that the composer is completely in control of his means.

Another thing that amazes me is how individual every sonata is. Every one is like another person, another personality, another character — a new beginning. As different as Mozart’s great piano concertos are, there is always that feeling of certainty that it is going be a Mozart piano concerto. With a Beethoven sonata, you never know what it is going to be, and he couldn’t, either. Each sonata is a new adventure.

Any composer that you love, chooses you. It is not a choice that you can make consciously.

Can you briefly characterize the three late sonatas?

The first movement of Op. 109 is like an improvisation, but also an answer to the questions “how brief can I be in the sonata form?” and “how disparate can the parts of the sonata be? Can I put two tempi together and create a sonata movement?” Beethoven uses a first theme which is hardly a theme but really a transition, and a second theme which is an Adagio.

The second movement is one of the very few prestissimi in Beethoven’s music: absolutely turbulent and over in a flash, very unconventional. The last movement is the goal of the piece, which is, by the way, true of all the sonatas. It has wonderful, marvelously inventive variations which end in great tranquility, sort of like the “Goldberg Variations.”

And what about Opp. 110 and 111?

Op. 110 has an essential unity in the opening movement, followed by a violent interlude as the second movement; I always think of it as a prodigal son who goes out to the taverns and the brothels. The third movement brings transformation, suffering, and the fugue, which turns the material into the exultation of the end. The fugue theme is taken right from the opening movement, and I think Beethoven wants you to notice this.

In Op. 111, instead of transformation, you have one thing starkly set off against another. There are only two movements; the first one is struggle and conflict, in the most concentrated C minor. This key always brings out Beethoven’s most turbulent and stormy side. The second movement is in C major and consists of a set of variations on a profoundly serene and very simple theme. This is the strictest set of variations that Beethoven ever wrote. It moves in the same pace from beginning to the very end, without change, but with every variation the pulse doubles — an extraordinary feat, I think.

I am in the music — or I try to be … I am enacting the music for myself and for the listener.

And is all this going through your head when you play these pieces?

Certainly not. This is objectified. I am in the music — or I try to be in the music. I am enacting the music for myself and for the listener. I don’t think these ideas play an important role while I am playing.

Do you play these sonatas with or without a score?

I have played all of them without, but these days I am playing a lot of music with a score. I have sometimes felt that the disadvantages outweighed the advantages, but I like having the music in front of me, even though I know it by heart, and looking at it if I want to. It can be a more unself-conscious way of making music.

After all, I play a lot of chamber music, and one plays chamber music with sheet music and nobody says anything. Maybe it is something that’s coming back. Some people have marvelous memories and can rely on them; sheet music would only get in the way. But other people, who don’t have such marvelous memories, will have to work 10 times as hard to memorize the music. So why not put it up on the stand … ? There is nothing in the score that says you have to play without it.

[British concert pianist] Myra Hess [1890–1965] always played with sheet music. During the blitz, she played in London’s National Gallery virtually every day, and so she was used to having music in front of her. When she played these sonatas — and I heard her do this in Carnegie Hall — she had a young man with her, turning the pages, and she said to the audience: “You may wonder why I have this young man on stage with me turning pages; it is because I also want to enjoy the music.”

After all these years, do these sonatas still present technical or physical difficulties?

There is always some sort of physical difficulty. The most technically demanding sonata that Beethoven wrote is the “Hammerklavier.” These last three sonatas certainly have their difficulties, but they are physically less demanding.

Is it exhausting to play them?

More mentally than physically. After a performance of the “Hammerklavier,” I am usually exhausted, and after these sonatas much less so. There are pianists like [Ferruccio] Busoni [1866–1924] who can sit down and play Opp. 101, 106, 9, 10, and 11, all in one performance. He apparently once did this at a party, where one too many people asked him to play! He didn’t like the idea of being invited to a social event only because he was a great pianist. So he took revenge, started with 101, and then played through all those sonatas [sniggers]. One would have wanted to be there, but maybe some of those people were getting more than they bargained for [laughs].

And what is the biggest musical difficulty in these last three sonatas?

The greatest musical difficulty is perhaps the degree of concentration and continuity that you need for the second and last movements of Op. 111. That is extremely demanding. It goes in a single tempo from beginning to end: You are following this great horizon and it is constantly developing, but something remains the same. It is a very long progress that you can never interrupt.

Would you be happy playing these pieces just by yourself, or do you need an audience?

Oh, I am very happy playing by myself [chuckles]; I love to play the piano by myself [laughs]. Having an audience makes for different issues, but, at best, the two experiences are not that different. Ideally, if you play, you feel that you attain a certain state; you are playing for yourself and also for others; their listening provides a sort of resonance for what you are doing. You are communicating the music and you are in touch with yourself and others at the same time. That is the ideal thing.