Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Richard Goode, piano recital, 27 February 2008

Queen Elizabeth Hall

Bach – Prelude and Fugue in C major, BWV 870
Bach – French Suite no.3 in B minor, BWV 814
Chopin – Mazurka in C, Op.24 no.2
Chopin – Mazurka in G, Op.50 no.1
Chopin – Mazurka in E minor, Op.41 no.2
Chopin – Mazurka in B minor, Op.33 no.4
Chopin – Impromptu in F sharp major, Op.36
Mozart – Rondo in A minor, KV 511
Chopin – Scherzo no.4 in E major, Op.54
Debussy – Etude no.11: ‘Pour les Arpèges composés’
Debussy – Etude no.5: ‘Pour les Octaves’
Chopin – Nocturne in C minor, Op.48 no.1
Chopin – Nocturne in B major, Op.62 no.1
Chopin – Polonaise in F sharp minor, Op.44

Richard Goode (piano)

Richard Goode opened his Queen Elizabeth Hall recital, ‘Homage to Chopin’, with some of the best Bach playing I have heard. He took full advantage of the modern piano without ever straying into merely ‘pianistic’ vulgarity. The C major Prelude and Fugue from Book II of the ‘Forty-eight’ was a perfect curtain-raiser, functioning rather like an overture in an orchestral programme. Bach’s counterpoint was wonderfully clear throughout, yet never at the expense of the manifold harmonic implications of the score. ‘Implications’ seems an especially appropriate word for the Prelude, with its parts that grow into chords: Goode’s mastery of the numerous held notes on which this depends was something quite rare, in every sense. So was the splendidly vocal quality to his part-playing, both in the Prelude and in the little three-part fugue. To this was added, in the third French Suite, a markedly orchestral sense. Goode’s characterisation of individual lines was so apt that one could imagine this part being allotted to a flute, that to a ’cello. Moreover, he showed a rhythmic security, attentive to the harmonic implications of the work’s rhythms, characteristic of the best performances of the Orchestral Suites: Klemperer or Karl Richter, for example. This was never at the expense of the piano’s unique qualities, however; far from it. The hushed return of the fifth movement’s Menuet, for example, was quite magical in purely instrumental terms.

Chopin also adored Mozart, and the Rondo in A minor, perhaps Mozart’s single greatest work for solo piano, is more than suggestive of why. Some of its highly Romantic piano writing clearly looks forward to Chopin and even beyond. The music is often highly chromatic, as is the melodic line of the rondo theme, which suggests a vast range of harmonic possibilities, as in Bach. Textures are more complex than is often the case in the sonatas. Yet I did not feel that Goode responded strongly enough to these rewarding although admittedly treacherous possibilities. Whilst his Mozart was thankfully not of the ‘Dresden china’ persuasion, it still felt somewhat inhibited, despite marvellous incidental beauties, such as the perfectly articulated left hand staccato runs. The arrival of the A major episode, which should be a moment of utopian beauty, seemed oddly matter-of-fact. And where Mozart really goes for the jugular, at the beginning of the coda, Goode seemed far more wary of exploiting his modern instrument than he had in the Bach works.

Debussy’s celebrated line, that ‘Chopin is the greatest of them all, for through the piano he discovered everything,’ was quoted in the programme. One of Chopin’s greatest disciples was represented by two Etudes. The first, ‘Pour les Arpèges composés’, suffered from sounding excessively like a homage to Chopin. There was a full-blooded Romanticism, occasionally verging upon the heavy-handed, to its Scherzandere middle section, which, although it might have made sense in terms of the programme, did not really work in practice. ‘Pour les Octaves’, however, was marvellous, as full of suggestive wit as post-impressionistic ambiguity. Goode’s touch was fully equal here to whatever Debussy demanded. The composer’s marking, ‘Joyeux et emporté, librement rythmé,’ is an apt summation of Goode’s performance.

Chopin himself was well served. The selection of Mazurkas was masterfully characterised, both as a group and in terms of the individual character of the pieces. As with the Bach suite, Goode exhibited great sensitivity to the difficult balancing act between the dance origins of the works and their new life as instrumental pieces. Thus the rhythms danced and the progressions were suitably accented, not least the stomping middle section of Op.24 no.2, but this was accomplished through pianistic re-creation rather than slavish imitation. The painful sadness of Op. 33 no.4, marked Mesto, shone through as an exile’s longing for his homeland and his pain at that homeland’s suffering. At the same time, its dancing qualities ensured that it never descended into mawkishness. The larger pieces – the F sharp major Impromptu, the E major Scherzo, and the final F sharp minor Polonaise – received typically thoughtful performances. Effortless bravura is not Goode’s way, though this in no way implies any shortcomings in his technique. However, despite the thoroughly musical virtues of these performances, they could occasionally sound a little wanting in charm, when compared to the greatest Chopin players. Voice-leading, for instance, was for the most part carefully handled, with some revelations concerning inner parts; but the twinkle in the eye with which, say, Shura Cherkassky might have accomplished some such devilish feat was not to be seen (or heard, should that be possible). That said, the quasi-orchestral characterisation familiar from Goode’s Bach playing made a few appearances in his Chopin, and to equally good effect.

This was also apparent in the two selected Nocturnes, concerning whose performance I had no reservations whatsoever, at least after a slightly underwhelming opening to the great C minor Nocturne, Op.48 no.1. It is marked mezza voce, but this should not preclude, indeed it should encourage, a truly aristocratic poise. Thereafter, however, the growth of tension was unremitting, which owed a great deal to Goode’s understanding and projection of the underlying harmonic progression. The Doppio movimento section veritably seethed, all the more in retrospect, following the magical calming of the waves at the concluding diminuendo e rallentando. In the B major Nocturne, Op. 62 no.1, Goode’s expertise in part-leading came fully to the fore; here was the magic that was sometimes lacking in the larger Chopin works. There was magic too, in the purely pianistic roulades, spun with an almost Mendelssohnian gossamer. It was fitting that for his encore, Goode treated us to another Nocturne, that in E flat, Op. 55 no.2, whose fine performance reminded us of the virtues of its predecessors.