Richard Goode at the Southbank Centre, May 31 2017
Reviewed By Richard Lehman
On the eve of his 74th birthday, the American pianist Richard Goode provided a wonderful example of America giving back to Europe what Europe once gave to America: a living tradition of selfless musicianship. He gave a recital in London's Royal Festival Hall which began with Bach, proceeded to Chopin, and in the second half ended with two of Beethoven's last sonatas.
Ever since the invention of the piano in the mid-eighteenth century, critics have tended to divide pianists into the categories of showmen and musicians. All three composers in Goode's program fell into both categories in their own lifetimes; while Goode himself is very much the latter.
Bach in his day was in great demand as a stupendous virtuoso of the organ. He was never quite satisfied with keyboard instruments that could not sustain notes, and near the end of his life bought an early experimental version of what later became the piano. Many of his keyboard works seem to anticipate the qualities of the modern instrument, and Goode chose one of them which illustrates this very well: the questing, complex, enigmatic Partita 6 in E minor. It was a bold choice, so little played in public that even a well-informed and numerous audience did not quite know when to applaud at the end.
Moving from this to Chopin was to enter another world, and yet we found ourselves entering it from the right place. Bach was one of Chopin's twin idols, and he would end letters to his pupils with the curt injunction, "Play Bach!". The chosen Chopin pieces were not the most familiar, and each had an enigmatic character which was far removed from the candles-and-swooning-ladies caricature of Hollywood legend. They had much more the character of kaleidoscopic personal investigations of ever-changing rhythm and mood. Goode's playing here was truly beautiful: often powerful but never harsh, personal but never mannered, a worthy tribute to the tradition of Mieczyslaw Horszowski, Poland's greatest Chopin pianist of the last century and one of Goode's beloved teachers.
After the interval came two of Beethoven's final five piano sonatas. The first one, opus 101 in A major, ushers in Beethoven's compositional final period with its free beauty of song, a brief glimpse of hard-won heaven in its short slow movement, and endlessly affirmative rhythmic patterns in the two faster movements. Here Goode's teachers were Claude Frank and the mighty Rudolf Serkin, whose Beethoven playing has no real match in the present day. Yet this performance was just about as good as a mortal can get.
Every performance of the A flat sonata (op 110) is an experience to be judged by the integrity with which the indescribable power and beauty of the music reaches the listener, and not by comparison with any other performance. The experience here was wonderful, and the power was there; yet one had the sense that Goode is still developing his vision of the piece. And why not, at 74? This is an age at which some great pianists start getting sublime. This recital gave a strong impression of that process well under way. An encore followed, and the audience grew rapturous. But Goode, self-effacing as ever, left the hall and we departed, well-filled.
Before returning to the USA later in 2017, Richard Goode will also be performing at the Verbier Festival, Switzerland, on July 24 and July 29.