Pianist Richard Goode provided everything that is asked of a Beethoven master: color, infinite shadings, interesting, convincing tempi, and soul.
By Susan Miron
Boston’s Jordan Hall was sold-out on Saturday night for pianist’s Richard Goode’s performance of Beethoven’s last three sonatas, Op. 109, 110, and 111. Presented by The Celebrity Series of Boston, the hall was largely filled with seniors who had known – and loved – both Goode’s playing and these Beethoven masterworks for decades. Bostonians of a certain age might have known Goode as the pianist during the early years of the Boston Symphony Chamber Players. These days, most people know of him as the co-artistic director (from 1999-2013) and 28-summer participant of the prestigious Marlboro Music Festival. Before he attained worldwide fame as a soloist, he was recognized as one of the best chamber music players in the business.
Goode first gave a series of the complete (32) Beethoven sonatas in 1987-88 and 1995-66, and his recording (a 10-CD set) for his long-time record company, Nonesuch, earned a Grammy nomination. The last three Beethoven Piano Sonatas — along with the final three Schubert Piano Sonatas — are considered (as I mentioned in a review of a performance by pianist Till Fellner four years ago) as sublime as piano music gets – to play and to hear.
Goode had an interesting path to the world of soloist in recital and with orchestra. He made his first big splash as a recitalist when he was 47, after years of being a renowned chamber music player. Interestingly, it was his cycle of the 32 Beethoven Sonatas at the 92nd Street Y and his recordings of the 32 Sonatas that both sparked and cemented his reputation as a pianist who has plenty to say, especially about Beethoven. He began, naturally, with the earliest of the 3 sonatas, the E Major, No. 109. The first surprising thing is that he walked out with, and occasionally referred to, the printed score, a rare thing indeed among concert pianists. It wasn’t until the concert was nearly over that it hit me that chamber music – all music-making really — is about being an intent listener, and that Goode was performing in dialogue with the sheet music.
Goode has been touring with this program, and has issued, in interviews and in print, a number of interesting thoughts about the music. There is, he feels, “always a question, with these pieces, whether Beethoven intended the relationships between them. And there are some very relations between them. My feeling is that each one definitely stands on its own. When you play them together, hear them together, you’ll hear these relations. But, in my opinion, it doesn’t really change the way that you feel about each individual sonata. But since Beethoven is working on them together, it would be a little surprising if there weren’t such relationships somehow.”
Goode’s playing did whatever the music commanded: it was intense, passionate, powerful and delicate. His “interpretations” of Beethoven sounded entirely natural and convincing; his approach was always emotionally compelling. His dynamic range was astonishing, especially in his many trill (also double and triple trill) passages. It often felt as if I was listening to one of the piano world’s most expressive left hands.
Beethoven biographer Jan Swafford (Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph, Norton, 2014) compares the epochal series of thirty-two sonatas to the monumental achievement of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. In these final sonatas, Swafford asserts, the composer’s “increasingly dismaying life and his increasingly spiritual art reaches an apogee. The last three sonatas mark an end point of his evolution in every dimension: technical, pianistic, expressive, spiritual.” Goode had magnificent goods to deliver, and he did with admirable generosity. He provided everything that is asked of a Beethoven master: color, infinite shadings, interesting, convincing tempi, and soul. The audience was mesmerized.
In addition to the three sonatas, Goode played selections from the often humorous set of Opus 119 Bagatelles, a collection of little piano pieces, some extremely short, to the point that they triggered subdued laughter in the audience. Initially designed as exercises to assist in the development of technique in young musicians, the rarely-performed set was a joy to hear, and a lovely way to prepare the audience for the miracle of the two-movement last sonata. Opus 111, which ends with an astonishingly brilliant variation movement, the melodic line breaking down into faster and faster subdivisions of its basic beat. “It seems,” Steven Ledbetter writes in the program notes, “to float away into empyrean realms, only to sink earthward, at the very end to close on a simple unstressed C-major chord- perhaps the fundamental sound in our music.” It ends, as did the recital, with heavenly sounds, high trills that shimmered evanescently. I have heard this sonata played by many pianists. None do it better than Goode.
Susan Miron, a harpist, has been a book reviewer for over 20 years for a large variety of literary publications and newspapers. Her fields of expertise were East and Central European, Irish, and Israeli literature. Susan covers classical music for The Arts Fuse and The Boston Musical Intelligencer. She is part of the Celtic harp and storytelling duo A Bard’s Feast with renowned storyteller Norah Dooley and, until recently, played the Celtic harp at the Cancer Center at Newton Wellesley Hospital.