Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Music review: Goode's Bach, Chopin recital deep, beautiful

Pianist Richard Goode. (Photo by Michael Wilson)

By Greg Stepanich

WEST PALM BEACH -- Frederic Chopin, we are told, revered the work of J.S. Bach, and the Polish pianist's attention to the multiplicity of colors available through counterpoint gives his and his great predecessor's work the same power of enduring harmonic freshness.

The work of these two composers was the sole occupation Tuesday night of the sterling American pianist Richard Goode, who played fugues, mazurkas, waltzes and even a bourree as part of his recital at the Kravis Center. As always with this singular musician, the playing was remarkable for its smoothness, its suppleness of rhythm and variety of shading, and its overall taste and elegance.

Many a pianist who finds a showman's approach like that of Lang Lang uncongenial defaults to a position of sobriety and seriousness, perhaps in the hope of being seen as a valiant on the field of Big Ideas. But although Goode is a serious musician, he is many cuts above such pianists in that he can really play, and he marries his impressive technique to a spirit of playfulness that is entirely welcome because the listener gets the sense that Goode has lived, and is living, in the music, and offering it appropriately enough as his own gift.

Four of the works on Tuesday's program were preludes and fugue sets from the second book of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier. He opened the evening with the G minor pair (BWV 885), giving the French-overture prelude a quiet melancholy, and then opening up for rushes of beautiful, rolling sound in the vigorous three-beats-to-a-bar fugue (which he began by conducting with his right hand as his left sounded the subject).

He saved the other three sets for the second half of the recital, starting with the prelude and fugue in C major (BWV 870), in which an attractive plushness prevailed in the prelude followed by a sharply etched fugue with good headlong energy and minimal ornamentation. The gorgeous E major set (BWV 878) was exquisite; both pieces were played relatively slowly, with the emphasis on serenity in the prelude and muted triumph in the fugue.

The A minor set (BWV 889) also opened another drawer in Goode's technical toolbox, that of rhythmic precision. The fugue in particular is notorious for its trickiness, as the player has to keep the pulse steady amid repeated waves of florid 32nd-notes; Goode did this expertly, communicating the curious charm of the fugue and making it sound perfectly controlled and logical at the same time.

Goode also played Bach's Fifth French Suite (in G, BWV 816), choosing rather rapid tempos for the speedy dances, especially the initial Allemande, often played in a more contemplative fashion. While there were gratifying details such as the echoing in the different voices of a little four-note motif in the Courante, this was not Bach playing of the Glenn Gould variety, in which the astounding technical dexterity adds interest that might be lost because of the general austerity of the conception.

Instead, this was Bach on a piano, taking advantage of the resources of a modern piano, such as its gigantic sonic range, an attribute that helped make Goode's pianissimo reading of the second half of this suite's Sarabande so poignant and lovely. While the distinct identity of each note in the many hustle-bustle figurations throughout the suite was apparent, Goode was more interested in the larger effect of all those notes, resulting in a Bach that was modern and relevant, but not emoted out of recognition as music of the mid-18th century.

The Chopin selections that occupied the rest of the recital included short mazurkas and substantial larger works, such as the Third Scherzo (in C-sharp minor, Op. 39), the Barcarolle (in F-sharp major, Op. 60), and the Polonaise-Fantaisie (in A-flat major, Op. 61). In two of these larger pieces, Goode's playing was not entirely satisfying, as things started to get messy in the climactic pages of the Scherzo and the Polonaise-Fantaisie. And both works also sounded rushed and in too big of a hurry at these points as well, just when things need to be at their most emphatic.

Still, there were many things to love: The opening bars of the Scherzo, played like the grumble of a suddenly disturbed sleeping animal, or the wonderful new coloring Goode brought to the second iteration of the contrasting chords-and-raindrops theme that makes this piece so celebrated. In the Polonaise-Fantaisie, the haunting sadness of the minor-key transformation of the polonaise theme, or the sheer dexterity with which Goode traversed this masterwork's dizzying multiplicity of moods.

One only wished in the Polonaise-Fantaisie for a bit more drama, a slower, more emphatic apotheosis at the return to the home key at the end, longer pauses in the first section and its reappearance, with it somber chords followed by climbing arpeggios. Yet both performances of these large works were suitably epic, as was the Barcarolle, a less interesting piece but played brilliantly by Goode -- the big, awkward left hand patterns blended in without a hitch, and the huge final pages were massive and ecstatic, but not bangy.

It might be that the very finest playing of a whole night of wonderful pianism came in the shorter Chopin pieces. The F major Waltz (Op. 34, No. 3) had me wondering why in the world this witty, sparkling piece isn't played routinely on Chopin programs, and in the C minor Mazurka (Op. 56, No. 3), the poetry of the whole was underlined by the different hues Goode gave to each of its key changes.

Familiar nocturnes (in D-flat, Op. 27, No. 2) and waltzes (the evergreen Op. 64, No. 2, in C-sharp minor) received the same loving treatment as their less well-known kin, a testament to Goode's integrity. And perhaps best of all was the little Mazurka in A minor, Op. 7, No. 2, which Goode decorated with a few utterly characteristic Chopin-style ornaments, adding an extra layer of loveliness to his hushed, brooding interpretation.

The house at the Kravis Center was not terribly full, and there were early exits as well as no-shows for the second half. What they missed, in addition to a Chopin encore (the Nocturne in E-flat, Op. 55, No. 2), was high-minded yet entertaining music-making by one of our country's most respected pianists.

You would have to go a long way to find another player who advocates for this music as devotedly and stylishly as Richard Goode, and those of us who heard the whole concert can count ourselves fortunate.

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