Richard Goode took a sabbatical last year, and the fruits of that break in his schedule should be apparent when he performs Mozart's "Piano Concerto No. 27 (K.595)" this week in Meyerhoff Hall with David Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
Because it is Mozart's final concerto and was among the last major works he completed before his death, Goode says, it's usually interpreted as a death-haunted valediction to a genre the composer had made his own as he had no other.
"But it is not as tragic as some of Mozart's earlier piano concertos," Goode says in a telephone interview. "He didn't know his death was imminent and the piece suggests he was moving in a new direction. The sadness in the piece has been mythicized, and myths don't always hold up under scrutiny."
Goode, 52, long ago solidified his position as this country's finest interpreter of the Viennese classics. In fact, Goode is a legitimate heir to Artur Schnabel's mantle as the world's preeminent interpreter of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms. In comparison with his closest rivals, Goode is more reliable technically than Alfred Brendel and he employs color more imaginatively than Mitsuko Uchida.
He also has a restlessly inquisitive intelligence. The death-suffused atmosphere of Mozart's K.595 is not the only myth to have failed to survive Goode's sabbatical. Here are two others: Bach's keyboard works belong to harpsichordists and should never be performed on the modern piano; and Chopin's music belongs to specialists of another kind -- those pianists working in the lonely Slavic alcove off the main Viennese foyer.
Unlike Zinman, whose year-long sabbatical last year was spent playing golf in luxurious Ojai, Calif., Goode stayed home in his apartment on New York City's Upper West Side with his wife, Marcia, visiting friends, going to movies and playing "lots and lots of Chopin and Bach.
"I decided that they were too important to me, that I could not be a musician without playing their music," he says. That was apparent last month in Goode's recitals at the Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall.
His program began with a playful and inspiriting performance of Bach's "G Major Partita" and concluded with warm, idiomatic-sounding readings of such Chopin masterpieces as the "Scherzo in E Major," the "Fantasy Polonaise" and the "Barcarole."
Only a Chopin interpreter of the highest distinction could have made so clear Chopin's relationship to Bach in the Polish composer's singing polyphonic lines and his clarity of texture.
Significantly absent from the program was Beethoven -- whose music was the focus of Goode's energies for more than 10 years until his monumental, perhaps definitive, set of the 32 sonatas was released on the Nonesuch label in 1993. It was the pianist's concentration upon Beethoven that led him to eschew Chopin.
"I decided that I had to immerse myself in Beethoven's music before I could discover what it meant to me," the pianist said. "So many of these pieces -- the 'Appassionata' or the 'Waldstein,' for example -- are so celebrated that you have to dig hard to get beneath the levels of their acquired meaning."
And, he adds, "Beethoven requires a lot of iron in the sound, which means iron in the arm as well, and that makes it difficult to return to Chopin, whose music is all about suppleness."
But in the year that Goode spent relearning pieces by Chopin that he once played and learning new pieces (such as the "F minor Ballade") that he had always wanted to perform, he discovered affinities between the music of Chopin and Beethoven -- particularly the latter's last sonatas.
"There's also a quality of ecstasy in Chopin and in late Beethoven," Goode says. "In the first movement of Beethoven's opus 101 [the first of the composer's last five sonatas], for example, the length of the movement is all but determined by the lyric impulse. That's something Beethoven learned to have and that Chopin had from the beginning."
Beethoven is usually considered the man who made music heroic; Chopin, the master of the miniature. In his year of rediscovering Chopin's music, Goode learned to think otherwise.
"In certain pieces such as the C Minor etudes and many of the Polonaises, Chopin -- not Wagner, not Bruckner and not Strauss -- is the only other composer whose music sounds genuinely heroic," Goode says.
And when can we expect to hear Goode's Chopin preserved on disc?
As it happens, he is now recording everything on his recent recital program as well as 12 Mozart Concertos (four each year over the next three years) with the conductor-less Orpheus Ensemble.
But longtime fans of Richard Goode may be forgiven for being more hopeful about the release of the Mozart concertos than about the solo material, particularly the Chopin items.
The pianist is a generous and forgiving collaborator in chamber music efforts, but a notorious perfectionist when it comes to recording by himself. His set of Beethoven's 32 sonatas took him far longer to complete than any other pianist in the history of recorded sound. He has made fewer solo recordings than almost any other pianist of his reputation.
"With Orpheus, the Mozart concertos are like playing chamber music -- it's so easy because everybody knows what to do," Goode says. "Chopin is another matter. Where the accents go in the opening measures of the 'F Minor Ballade,' for example . . . seems more uncertain each time you look at it.
"I really do love to play music," Goode says. "But," he adds hesitatingly, "I'm not so sure about recording it."
Where: Meyerhoff Hall
When: 8:15 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday
Call: (410) 783-8000