‘Maybe there are a few composers I wouldn’t put together on the same program because they would jar,” says pianist Richard Goode. “But I’m not sure who they are.” More likely, I think to myself, Goode would discover significant ties between the works of any composers that exist and nuance his performance to make them seem closely related.
A probing maker of programs, Goode appears at McCarter Theater on Tuesday, October 16, with a cornucopia of pieces whose inclusion in the same evening does not necessarily seem inevitable. His McCarter program traverses three centuries worth of keyboard literature. It ranges from the meticulously-structured to the almost improvisational and from restraint to passion. The composers on the program include Johann Sebastian Bach, Franz Joseph Haydn, Johannes Brahms, Claude Debussy, and Friedrich Chopin.
“A pianist can inhabit all these worlds at the same time,” Goode says in a telephone interview from Ithaca, New York. “We take it for granted to move from Bach to Debussy in a half hour.”
He concedes that his McCarter program “is pretty long.” He plays two Bach Preludes and Fugues and five Sinfonias (Three Part Inventions); Haydn’s rarely-performed Sonata in D, No. 24; Brahms’s Seven Fantasies, Op. 116; three Debussy, Preludes — “La Cathedrale Engloutie,” “Ondine,” and “General Lavine, Eccentric;” Chopin’s F-sharp major Impromptu; three mazurkas; the B major nocturne, Op. 62, No. 1; and the F-sharp minor Polonaise, Op. 44.
“My programs this year center around Chopin,” Goode says. “They include lots of Chopin, composers Chopin loved, and composers who loved him.
“A year ago I took four months off and studied Chopin,” he continues, “realizing once again what a great composer he was.” Goode parses Chopin’s greatness as a composer. “One of the principal things he did was to try to translate bel canto for piano, to make the piano sing. He liked Bellini and Donizetti.”
In addition to creating admirable melodies, Goode believes Chopin enhanced them by choosing where on the instrument to locate the tunes and where to locate the accompaniment. “Not only did Chopin write fantastic melodies, but he set them in a special way, by his use of the registers of the piano. Not only that, Chopin’s heroic music is very moving; the Polonaise I’m playing is powerful and relentless.”
Chopin’s passion led to excellent music that is not easy to play, Goode says. “Chopin almost never published inferior music. His compositions are tremendously concentrated. Chopin is difficult to play because the level of his emotional intensity is very high. He’s like Mozart, a composer he admired.”
Goode’s renown as a solo pianist grew from his performances of Beethoven. In 1993 he was the first American-born pianist to record all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. “After focusing on a particular composer, you want something more in your diet,” he says.
“In a way, Chopin and Beethoven are opposite,” Goode continues. “Beethoven was the great constructor. Chopin’s constructions are well worked-out, but he doesn’t have the same architectural impulse as Beethoven. Still, Beethoven’s tragic strain is very present in Chopin.” Goode finds heartbreak in Chopin’s B-flat minor sonata, and some of the Etudes and Scherzi.
‘I believe that the ‘Moonlight Sonata’ is more like Chopin than anything else Beethoven wrote,” Goode says. “It’s the way he uses the key. There’s very little Beethoven in C-sharp [although there’s quite a bit of Chopin.] In fact, Ernst Oster, the music theorist, wrote a paper saying that Chopin’s ‘Fantasie Impromptu’ was published posthumously because it is too close to the last movement of the ‘Moonlight Sonata.’ In any case, there is such a thing as a Chopinesque mood and the first movement of the ‘Moonlight Sonata’ is certainly in a nocturnal mood.” Composer of 19 nocturnes, Chopin surpassed the output of John Field, the Irish composer who originated the nocturne.
Goode is at first surprised that he has not included the “Moonlight Sonata” on his Princeton program. Then he remembers that on some concerts during his tour he substitutes Brahms’s Op. 116 for the Beethoven. Princeton is one of those.
Yet, a musical link exists between Chopin and Brahms’s Op. 116. There is something nocturnal about the Brahms component. The pieces range from the delicate romance of the world after sunset to the terrified writhing induced by nightmares. Furthermore, the seven pieces of Opus 116 share the ABA structure that Chopin so frequently uses.
I have a lot of confidence in Richard Goode. His is a rare combination of penetrating clarity and musical warmth. He finds new ideas in well-worn music and the listener realizes that they were always there. His ability to think about what he plays leaves his emotions unfettered. His timing and technical control communicate his musical purposes. Goode is always convincing.
So I turn to the three movements of Haydn’s obscure Sonata No. 24, to scope out what Goode might find there. The first movement bulges with repeated figures that could be boring; it requires the sort of organization that many of Chopin’s Etudes demand for turning pattern into drama. I wonder what secrets Goode will find. The movement also incorporates the transparency of two voices talking to each other that Bach mastered and the suppressed jokes that Beethoven favored. The second movement switches into minor without changing its keynote, just as Chopin does. It is stately but occasionally goes out of bounds. With no pause, the third movement returns to major. It is a cheerful romp except for one very sinister, sustained chord that clouds what follows, and requires the listener to rethink the preceding portion of the movement. This relatively short sonata might be a summary of Goode’s entire program. Maybe he’ll give the piece more weight by taking the repeats.
Now 64, Goode was born in New York in 1943. By the time he was three, he was singing along with Bing Crosby records. Recognizing the boy’s musical talent, his father, a piano tuner who had once played violin, thought that his son ought to study violin. In preparation, he started the boy on piano lessons when he was six. The violin study never materialized.
Goode’s musical career unrolled sedately as he worked consecutively with a quartet of mentors from various schools of piano playing: Elvira Szigeti, the aunt of Hungarian violinist Joseph Szigeti; Claude Frank, who studied in France and the United States; Russian-trained Nadia Reisenberg at New York’s Mannes College of Music; and Austrian-trained Rudolf Serkin at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute.
After graduating from Curtis, Goode studied conducting at Mannes with Carl Bamberger and theory with Carl Schachter. At age 26 he was one of the founding members of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, which gave its first concert in 1969. He won the Clara Haskil Prize in 1973 and the Avery Fisher Prize, given without competition, in 1980. A reluctant solo performer, he nevertheless made a splash when he played the Beethoven Sonata cycle at New York’s 92nd Street Y during the 1987-’88 season. In 1990, at age 47, he got around to a Carnegie Hall debut.
He met his wife, New York-born violinist Marcia Weinfeld, when he played a chamber music concert in Ottawa, Canada, in 1983. The meeting happened because of a last-minute shift in the program. Otherwise the two might never have crossed paths.
An exclusive Nonesuch recording artist, Richard Goode has an extensive discography. Among its highlights are recordings with soprano Dawn Upshaw, a series of Mozart piano concertos with the conductorless Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, and all six of Bach’s Partitas. He won a Grammy for his recording with clarinetist Richard Stoltzman.
Forthcoming is a recording of Beethoven concertos with the Budapest Festival Orchestra under Ivan Fischer, to be released in spring, 2008. Goode finds the orchestra singularly compatible. “They play with remarkable spirit,” he says. “At the beginning of every rehearsal the winds and brasses play Bach chorales while the strings listen. That’s an indication of their attitude to music. I never heard them play anything routinely. There’s a special relationship between the conductor and the instrumentalists. It’s a learning orchestra besides a playing orchestra.”
Goode’s recent activities are organizational, as well as performing. In 2005-’06 he was responsible for a series of eight concerts as part of Carnegie Hall’s “Perspectives” series. With pianist Mitsuko Uchida, he is co-artistic director of the Marlboro Music School and Festival in Vermont, the chamber music mecca started by Rudolf Serkin in 1951.
As the first recipient of the $50,000 Jean Gimbel Lane Prize in Piano Performance at the Northwestern University School of Music, Goode is now in his second year of a two-year residency. “Northwestern has a very good music department, with high standards for students,” he says. Last spring he focused on Beethoven, with a recital, a lecture, and master classes. In 2008 he will concentrate on Chopin. “I’ve chosen the lecture title, but I haven’t decided on its contents yet,” Goode says “I’m calling it ‘Chopin’s Voices.’ That leaves me a lot of room without penning me in.”
Goode’s lecture strategy is not quite consistent with his performing strategy. “To prepare for the lecture I take extensive notes. I plan an opening sentence or two, and then go from there. It’s a strange thing: when I play in public I try not to improvise. The first time I improvised in a lecture, it was a little scary, but I found that improvising my talk was liberating.
“I’ve tried improvising on the piano, but nobody would want to hear it. Actually, improvisation could make piano playing more exciting and more people are interested in improvising on the piano than they were some time ago. [Pianist] Robert Levin’s concerto performances where he improvises Mozart cadenzas are particularly appealing.”
Still, Goode has is no intention of following Levin’s path. “Words,” says Goode, “are easier to improvise than piano.”
Richard Goode, Tuesday, October 16, 8 p.m. McCarter Theater, 91 University Place. Piano recital features Baroque, classic, and Romantic repertoire. $42 to $45. 609-258-2787.