Goode puts his genius on display in Spaulding

by Brent Reidy | 1/10/05 6:00am

Richard Goode performed this past Saturday in Spaulding, and those familiar with his work were not surprised by the concert. That is, however, not to say the concert was a disappointment for Goode fans. Rather, it was consistent and most likely pleasing: an assortment of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven (and this time, Debussy!) performed with a modern conservatory touch on a twentieth-century concert grand piano. The performance was, as far as Western Art concerts go, a crowd-pleaser.

While some music aficionados, such as myself, tend to thumb their noses at performers who do not go out on an interesting limb, it is important to recognize Goode's relevance. Just as every Kronos String Quartet needs their Emerson, every Glenn Gould needs his Richard Goode. The evening was not about radical interpretations of old pieces, nor was it a historically informed period performance; it was about the aesthetic pleasure of old favorites played on a modern Steinway.

However, along with Goode's decision to play century old pieces on a twentieth century Steinway came certain compromises. This was most evident with the first piece on the program, Haydn's "Sonata in C Major, Hob.XVI:50." The piece is described as a Haydn's direct reaction to experiencing, for the first time, the sonority of a late 1700's Broadwood grand piano while in London. The sonata was composed very specifically for a certain instrument because of its certain sonority. Therefore, performing it on a different instrument inherently spoils Haydn's original intent.

The above aside, the piece also suffered as it calls for an open pedal over a great number of measures. A modern piano sustains sound far too long for such an effect. As Goode explained post-concert, he had to pedal more than is indicated. Though Goode still claims the "cloud of sound" remained delightfully muddled, the effect lost some of its original charm and beauty.

After the concert, one audience member asked Goode what he thought of historically-informed performance on period instruments, specifically his Haydn sonata. He responded that he listens to recordings with "great interest" but in the end, his "ear is the final arbiter."

Regardless, Goode's playing was very engaging, and at times, downright delightful. He managed to maintain the clarity of voice and thinness of bass that characterizes earlier pianos, wonderfully illuminating Haydn's work. However, Goode's eagerness seemed overzealous at times; some wrong notes seemed incomprehensible (in one case an incorrect cord was struck) and the dynamic choices in the third movement of the Haydn sometimes felt unintentional.

The two highlights of the program were sandwiched in the middle: Mozart's "Rondo in A minor, K. 511," and Beethoven's "Piano Sonate No. 26 and No. 27." Goode gained great fame for his 1994 recording of the Beethoven sonata cycle, and his playing here was his best.

One could not have asked for a more beautiful performance of these pieces. At times, the Mozart piece seemed to wander and lose focus. However, I blame this squarely on the piano itself, which ended up being a persistent problem in this concert.

Debussy proved to be Richard Goode's downfall. He attempted the Preludes, Book One, and met limited success. The start was especially rocky. "Dansues de Delphes" was plagued with flubbed notes and a faltering touch. Ill-executed dynamics continued to be a problem in some of the other pieces, as it seemed that Goode underestimated the famed Hopkins Center Steinway Grand's sheer inferiority. Notes in the most upper register were swallowed by the middle ranger, despite their textual importance. The effect was almost that of badly placed stereo speakers.

Thankfully, Goode regained some of his footing, and "Le serenade interrompue" and "La cathdrale engloutie" were played very well; the latter being the best-performed piece of the series. Sadly, the end piece "Minstrels" was nearly as unsatisfying as the beginning.

As mentioned above, Goode's usually beautiful touch was seriously stymied by the inadequacy of the Hopkins' concert grand. More so than ever, the piano sounded muffled; inordinately quiet and plain for its size. Sometimes the pedal was louder than the chords being sustained, and unfortunately, Goode's interpretations felt as if they had been compressed to Mpeg-layer-3 format and played for the audience through ten-dollar headphones. At times, a frightening large rattle accompanied climactic chords (in the Debussy, "La Cathdrale Engloutie" was particularly effected), frustratingly ruining the music's effect.

If one is a fan of Richard Goode, it is likely that little of the above had great import on the beauty of the concert. That is to say, if one wished to see near perfect performance of old classics on a Steinway grand, then one would have been pleased.

However, for those of us seeking a breath of fresh air, Goode's performance sometimes felt unconvincing. Perhaps an all-Beethoven concert would have better presented Goode's particular talents, for it was in his presentation of those sonate that the audience caught a glimpse of true genius.