At 60, Goode is branching out

Bartok is on his BSO schedule

October 23, 2003|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The world has never lacked for accomplished pianists. Genuine keyboard artists who have something meaningful to say are a rarer breed. One of them is a 60-year-old New Yorker who has been performing for four decades with quiet authority and technique to spare. He's Richard Goode, and he's right up there with the best.

Goode's international career, full of prizes and plaudits, has taken him just about everywhere, in recital and in collaboration with orchestras, chamber musicians and singers. He made national waves years ago playing the five Beethoven concertos with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Zinman. He also became the first American-born pianist to record the complete Beethoven sonatas. In addition to concertizing and recording, Goode also serves as co-artistic director of the famed Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont.

When it comes to the core keyboard repertoire - especially Bach, Mozart and Beethoven - Goode invariably makes listeners sit up and take notice with his deeply considered approach.

It's exactly the same when he turns to composers who have not been closely associated with him, such as baroque Englishman William Byrd, whose pieces he played beguilingly last year at the Peabody Institute. Lately Goode has been concentrating for the first time on Haydn sonatas and music by Janacek; works by Faure may be next.

This week, in his first BSO engagement in nearly eight years (Michael Stern is the conductor), audiences will get to hear the expected and unexpected from Goode. He'll play concertos by Mozart (No. 25) and Bartok (No. 3).

The pianist, who has made infrequent forays into 20th-century music, recently added the Bartok concerto to his repertoire (he will play it with the score in front of him). "But I have a connection to Bartok," the soft-spoken Goode says in his Baltimore hotel room. "One of my teachers was a Hungarian, Elvira Szigeti, who gave me a lot of Bartok to play, along with Bach and Mozart. And I've always loved Bartok's Third Concerto. It's a piece I grew up with - not playing it, but hearing it on the [Gyorgy] Sandor recording."

Bartok, who had fled Hungary after the rise of fascism in Europe, settled unhappily in New York, where he was close to finishing the Third Concerto when he died in 1945 (a pupil orchestrated the last 17 measures). "I remember reading a book about Bartok and discovering that he lived for a time in the Bronx, not far from where I grew up," Goode says. "So some of the concerto was written near my house."

That physical proximity makes a neat connecting point, but it's clearly the music itself that draws Goode.

Bartok wrote the concerto specifically for his wife, as a gesture of affection and also as a vehicle that could help her earn money by performing it after his death. "She was not a big virtuoso, although she could do some things very well apparently, judging by the score," Goode says. "The piece does not have the bravura, Lisztian stuff of the Second Concerto. It's not like anything else he wrote. It is a modest piece, in a way, and beautifully clear. There is great intensity, but a sort of classical economy."

In many ways, Bartok's Third Concerto reflects the structural elegance and balance between keyboard and orchestra found in a Mozart concerto. The second movement makes a haunting allusion to the chorale theme in the slow movement of the String Quartet, Op. 132, by Beethoven, his "hymn of thanksgiving" for recovering from an illness. Bartok, suffering from the leukemia that would kill him, enjoyed slightly improved health at the time he started work on the concerto, so the musical quotation takes on a poignant edge.

"That movement is extraordinarily profound and terribly moving," Goode says. "The chorale theme is almost consoling, but develops into an anguished climax. I can't help but think that it reflects Bartok's terrible years of exile in this country."

If the Bartok concerto represents a new step for Goode, Mozart's Concerto No. 25 is more of an old, comfortable shoe. It's the first concerto he ever played in public. Even back then, he put a personal stamp on it by supplying his own cadenza. (Mozart didn't leave one himself.) Goode will again play a cadenza of his devising in the BSO performances. "It's very nice to know you have the right to do whatever you want," he says.

Other than a cadenza, which is fair game, Goode is not likely to add notes to a score, even though there are historical precedents for the ornamentation of a melodic line in pieces by Mozart. "It's a case-by-case thing," he says. "I think there are places where it is absolutely necessary, places where the piano part is left bare. If embellishment makes such a passage more interesting and beautiful, do it. Otherwise leave it alone."

When Goode was starting his career in the 1960s, few musicians were even discussing such matters as embellishment. It became a hotter topic after the rise of the "authenticity movement," which subsequently shook up the musical establishment by advocating the re-creation of historic performance practices.

"I remember being at a Mozart conference," Goode says, "when a scholar asked everyone what would happen if we discovered a recording of Mozart playing. It would, of course, be marvelous in ways we didn't know. But would we try to imitate that forever? No. We play according to our own time, feeling and what we want to hear in the music."

In the end, the pianist continues to give authentic Goode performances. And that continues to suit listeners just fine.

BSO

Where: Meyerhoff Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.

When: 8 tonight and tomorrow, 3 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $27 to $75

Call: 410-783-8000

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