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Archive for April, 2016

Richard Goode

Richard Goode

Richard Goode

I was once in a chamber music group with someone who refused to listen to any music written in the nineteenth century. In fact, she thought the rot even started with Haydn and Mozart and lasted until after the First World War. The problem for her was that music from the romantic era was so self-absorbed, enervated by the self-aggrandizement of composers casting themselves as tragic heroes. I have some sympathy with her viewpoint. I have written about how I find the Byronic brooding of a piece like Liszt’s Vallée d’Obermann painfully narcissistic. I find myself wanting to tell the eponymous hero to get over himself, which explains why I could never be a therapist. On the other hand, I wouldn’t want all music to be without some inner significance for the composer. I can be moved by Schubert’s courage when facing an early death and touched by Schumann’s confessional yearning for Clara, while acknowledging that they may have lost some of the sheer joy in creativity of a composer like Bach and his Baroque contemporaries. Sometimes, music is just meant to be enjoyed as music, reaching inside us subliminally without any overt psychological agenda

Richard Goode played an all-Bach program at Chicago’s Symphony Center this afternoon. I must admit that, much as I love Bach, I am not a fan of all-Bach piano recitals. Jeremy Denk gave an exhilarating performance of the Goldberg Variations, which was over all too quickly, but that is a piece that builds inexorably to its manic conclusion. After the concert, Goode pointed out that much of Bach’s music does not progress; in some ways, it is like contemporary music in that it lives in the moment. However, those moments can be so saturated with contrapuntal detail that it can be intellectually exhausting trying to keep track. He suggested that eight or so fugues were enough for one afternoon. I can only agree.

In fact, the recital was fairly short on fugues, but not, of course, short on counterpoint. My friend would probably have loved Goode’s playing, as he seems devoid of ego, content to let the music speak for itself. He has a natural flowing style, without any obvious stylistic agenda. He is not given to stentorian declamations or sudden dynamic contrasts, and unlike András Schiff recently, he is rarely austere and never didactic. His phrasing is warm and supple, with clear but not overly precise articulation. However, he is also fleet-fingered, and so not afraid to let rip when the music calls for it, such as in the finale of Bach’s Italian Concerto. This was especially exciting as he was turning his own pages while playing at breakneck speed.

While all his playing reflects a natural musicality, I did find that it rarely made me sit up and notice in the way that Alfred Brendel did when I last heard the concerto live, in London some forty years ago. In the slow movement, Brendel sharply differentiated the crisply articulated melody in the right hand from the hushed thirds in the left, imaginatively creating a whole new sound world while respecting the intent of Bach’s original writing for a two-manual harpsichord. It is sad that Brendel played so little Bach, since his playing was truly original, although always in service to the music. Goode was also expressive but more conventionally so; the right and left hands were clearly playing on the same keyboard. At his best, as in some of the sprightlier movements in the French Suite No. 5 or the second Partita, he could really make the music dance, but I was tired and found that some of the music merged into a homogeneous blur until I was revived by the interval wine.

Like Menahem Pressler, Richard Goode concentrated on chamber music in his early career, but unlike Pressler, he didn’t wait until he was ninety before emerging as a major soloist in his own right. It is perhaps because of his biography that he doesn’t feel the need to grab us by the neck and make us pay attention. He seemed happiest playing the unassuming Sinfonias, three-part inventions written to educate Bach’s children. It was music that was never intended for a large concert hall, but Goode loves it and he plays what he loves. When asked why he plays with the music in front of him, he said he just prefers it and feels that he has earned the right to do as he pleases. And why not? I suspect that he is not particularly prone to brooding romantically. My friend would approve.

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