By Bob Kingston
The noted American pianist Richard Goode was in town earlier this week to launch Portland Piano International’s 30th anniversary season with a pair of recitals at the Newmark Theater. A relatively small crowd showed up to the second of the two on Tuesday evening, which featured works by Bach, Chopin, and Schubert. Turnout at weekday concerts can be notoriously low, especially if the performer in question is not a household name, but those in attendance Tuesday had the chance to sample some truly outstanding playing.
Goode’s reputation in this country rests largely on his highly regarded interpretations of Mozart and Beethoven, but it’s evident from the works opening the program—the Preludes and Fugues in F major and B major from Book II of the Well-Tempered Clavier—that he has a keen ear for the finer details of Bach’s solo keyboard pieces as well. He showed a strong preference for inner voices, though never once did he allow this to disrupt the balance or flow of the top and bottom lines. Notable, too, were those moments where he introduced subtle shifts in dynamics and articulation to enliven some of Bach’s denser contrapuntal textures. Although Goode clearly drew on the full range of the modern piano in these performances—witness his rather liberal use of the pedal—the music still managed to sound light, clear, and wonderfully fresh.
While some in the audience might have found Goode’s more restrained approach to Chopin a bit unsatisfying, I thought it offered an entirely different way of perceiving and appreciating this music. The three mazurkas Goode chose to start his Chopin set—quite literally, I might add, as he announced from the stage that the ones listed in the program were from the previous evening’s concert—weren’t flashy showpieces by any means, but were rather more intimate, even brooding, examples of the genre. Much as he had done with his Bach interpretations, by focusing our attention on the music rather than on the performer, Goode emphasized the rich interplay of individual melodic lines, and in doing so made an important connection between the two composers. His performance of the Op.54 Scherzo in E major, while not lacking in fire, was also striking for its sharp contrasts.
Goode’s 1985 recording of the Schubert Sonata in B flat major was something of a revelation for me when I first encountered it almost two decades ago, and hearing this late masterpiece performed live on Tuesday reminded me why he’s one of its most compelling interpreters. What came through in his reading was not only a deep and abiding concern with lyricism and the lyrical impulse, but also an understanding of how to sustain the composer’s complex musical argument over a long span of time. Very few pianists I know are able to control the large dimensions of Schubert’s last sonata with such ease and grace.
Bob Kingston is a Portland-based musicologist and critic.