Richard Goode on Piano

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Goode_on_pianojpgRenowned classical pianist Richard Goode performed last Sunday at Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall, a happy alternative to the Super Bowl and a stone’s throw away from the national conflict between Berkeley and the Marines. Perhaps he could have set up his Steinway on the street in front of the recruiting station, as his interpretations of Chopin and Beethoven would make both pacifists and soldiers stop and listen.

We all have artists who touch us in a special way or who seem to follow us around.  Goode is one of mine.  When I was 23, I sat in the third row of his Schubert recital in Philadelphia.

His final encore mesmerized me such that I hummed the theme for the next twelve hours, skating home, getting to bed, waking up, skating to the stacks at the Penn library and looking through the entire catalogue of Schubert piano scores, still humming, until i found it.  The Impromptu in A flat, D. 935/2.

I bought a beat-up piano a few days later and started to play classical music again, for the first time since I was a kid.  I’ve never stopped.  The night before I left New York for Paris Goode had a recital at Lincoln Center.  A year later, the night before I came back to the states, he had a recital in Paris. And the teacher I found in New York when I returned had studied with Goode.

His playing is always always singing.  So many pianists today have a lean, hard sound, meant to get us from here to there like a bullet train.  Or there is a plushness that is ever-so-slightly manufactured.  Goode’s playing is natural, always thinking with his head and heart, meeting us more than halfway in our search to join with the composer and the music and the eternal. 

As with the Chopin recordings of Artur Rubinstein, he takes us at least partway back to the salon days when everyone had a piano and it was a primary form of social communication.

He has a following. It is not a cult, as with Ivo Pogorelich or Martha Argerich. It’s more that when you meet another person who appreciates him, you smile and talk about him with a shared joy that you have this friend who is unlike any other.

On Sunday he played 20 short pieces, including encores, by Bach and Chopin and Beethoven and Debussy and Faure.  His longest selection was Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, a well-known piece which classical music fans will tell you in their snobbish way is overplayed, but when presented this way we don’t hear it nearly enough.

The three movements are very different, but in this reading it felt like walking along the same river in its changing moods.  The famous, brooding first movement was steady, with a fairly tight rein on the dynamics and the tempo, very little rubato.  His constancy allowed us to hear the subtleties in the writing, as with the poem he spun out of the opening notes of the triplets in the right thumb. 

The middle movement danced and sang and in the finale he used less pedal than usual, with more separation of notes in those dramatic upward runs. One could easily hear the same composer who would write the Waldstein, Appassionata, and Hammerklavier.   

Goode often plays the high treble notes without that ringing, whip-like sound we’ve come to expect.  He rounds it, even at fortissimo, so that it stays aligned with the rest of the sound.  Without drawing attention to the contrast, he often chooses to play a little against type.  His opening Bach selections, Sinfonias for the most part, were pedaled and finger-pedaled so that Bach’s architectural lines became liquid, without losing the structure.

His Chopin Mazurkas, short dance pieces, were very dramatic, the E minor, Op 41/1 almost thick.   The piece I enjoyed most was the Chopin Nocturne in C minor, Op 48/1.  Again there was that round, liquid sound, like a mermaid’s harp, and then octave runs that made for a sea’s storm.

In 1993, Goode recorded on Nonesuch Records the 32 Beethoven sonatas, the first American-born pianist to record the cycle.  You can buy them now as a 10-disc set for less than $60. Each of these is a story worth re-telling, and Goode presents them with a full range of voices and emotions and meaning. 

My concert companion noted that when Goode walks out he looks a little like Beethoven, with a thick head of white hair.  He sits at the piano and hums a little and brings the sound up and out of the keyboard, lifting it for all of us to hear as it seeks higher ground.


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