A Master of Intimate Works

Jerry Kuderna on April 3, 2007
In the 40 or so years that I've been attending Richard Goode's concerts, none has failed to challenge me to hear music with fresh ears. His solo recital Monday night at Davies Symphony Hall, presented by San Francisco Performances, was no exception. In an unusual program featuring shorter works from Mozart to Debussy, Goode revealed that the intimate can be as provocative and compelling as the lengthy sonatas that form the basis of his repertoire. Although it is common to hear Bach's keyboard works played in large concert halls, bringing them off is still a difficult feat. The artist has to play them either in an extroverted manner, in which case the fine details can get lost, or introverted, and then they won't project at all. Goode chose the G-Major Partita (BWV 829), one of Bach's most joyous works for the solo keyboard, and gave it an uninhibited account that sounded neither forced nor fussy. He united the various dance movements into a cumulative experience that made you forget the brilliant passagework and simply focus on the music. The concluding double fugue contains an interrogative second subject that Goode played precisely right — l like a vocal exclamation. It seemed to epitomize the notion that Bach always has something vital and fresh to say.

As the Composer Might Have Played It

Mozart's A-Minor Rondo (K. 511), which followed, provided exactly the right contrast. It was the longest single piece played all evening, and its gentle cantabile theme seemed to form the emotional center of the program. Each time the theme returned, it sounded ever more poignant, providing a sober counsel to the unbuttoned high spirits of the Bach. Indeed, I wondered how it could be so melancholy and yet so uplifting at the same time. The elaborate ornaments, for once fully written out by the composer, gave us listeners the sense of how Mozart might actually have played his own music. Goode brought out the pathos and a wistful side to the piece that I had long imagined but never heard successfully realized. Yet another aspect of reflection and retrospection is revealed in Brahms' meditations on mortality — the Fantasies and Capriccios, Op. 116. Here are the first of his late "intermezzi" that reflect on the profoundly personal and that were surely meant, first and foremost, for his closest and dearest friend, Clara Schumann. The energetic Presto in D minor of the first piece was appropriately heaven storming. When the sighing theme of the following Andante was heard, there was restlessness and then the most delicate embroidery imaginable in the middle section. The passionate piece in G minor that followed was a powerful display of the pianist's prowess. From that point on, Goode was completely in his element. In three slow pieces, with their sustained and drawn-out cadences that go to the heart of Brahms' nostalgia and heimweh, we heard each endearment (and then some). Perhaps because of the length of the program's first half, I felt Goode's anxiety about getting us home on time, yet in the Adagio (No. 4) I thought, "Hang it all, let time come to a stop." In the spooky E-Minor Intermezzo, Goode seemed to "play through" the rests, capturing the rocking rhythm and an uncanny sense of weightlessness. Although the rests seemed to interrupt the line, they turned out to be the most haunting aspect of the piece, while the slurred chords served to punctuate the silences.

Debussy as Classicist

The entire last half of the program was devoted to Debussy's Second Book of Preludes. I had looked forward to hearing Goode play excerpts and discuss them fascinatingly with Sarah Cahill on her weekly radio show. Debussy has figured prominently in the artist's recitals in recent years, and these atmospheric works represent a world that, on the surface, lies outside the canon of Bach, Mozart, and Brahms. With their emphasis on color and mood, they require a great deal of technical control and discipline to bring off effectively. Goode has these in abundance, no question about it. In the study in thirds — the one piece with an abstract title — Goode made it sound like child's play, which in a sense it is. Despite the luscious sounds that Goode produced in the "Bruyeres" (Heather) piece and elsewhere, somewhere during the set I couldn't help pondering what had become of the tonic dominant cadences that had been the norm among composers for the piano only 20 years earlier. We had come such a long way from Brahms. Then my answer arrived: the 10th Prelude, titled "Canope," a piece composed almost entirely of triadic harmonies as a meditation on ancient burial customs. Perhaps Brahms and Debussy did have a lot in common, after all. Above all, both were classicists concerned with preserving tonality. Goode could have played the Debussy pieces first on his recital and they would have been the classic works on the program — and then the Germans would have sounded positively avant-garde.