Stephen Plaistow pays tribute to an artist who has taken the slow route
Like all the best musician-pianists, Richard Goode appears to run and run. Every time we hear him, he impresses us as better than we remembered, surprising us, surpassing our expectations and communicating perceptions that stay in the mind. ‘He was in fine form, wasn’t he?’ said a friend after Goode’s Royal Festival Hall recital a few weeks back; yes, but so were Schumann and Chopin – better still.
‘It isn’t about me,’ Goode might have said, but of course he was the pianist we had come to hear. It’s not an easy thing, winning through to that ‘second simplicity’ (as I believe Schnabel called it), touching the wellspring of the music so that, just for those moments, it seems to be playing by itself. Perceiving and understanding and mastery are of course the start of getting it off the page; in performance, making everything happen at the right time is the hard part. No wonder some artists of Goode’s temperament take the slow route in a lifetime’s work and are disinclined to make as many recordings as we might like.
At the age of 33, Alfred Brendel had completed a recording of all the Beethoven sonatas, his first, together with most of the variations and other solo piano works: ‘I just plunged into an adventure, the consequences of which I could no more foresee than could the recording company that had put its trust in me.’ I frequently think of Brendel and Goode as kindred spirits, not so much because of the Austro-German repertoire in which they have overlapped but because of their inquiring minds. They share a ceaseless intellectual curiosity. Yet at the age Brendel was, Goode was still unsure about a commitment to push himself as far as he could as a solo artist. He had established himself as a chamber musician in his native New York – but to leave the relative security of chamber music? He was not short of encouragement to do so. Rudolf Serkin had spotted his gifts early on and invited him to the Marlboro Music School and Festival (where Goode is now co-artistic director) when he was still in his teens. Goode describes the Marlboro experience as perhaps the most important part of his musical education. Serkin, devoted to chamber music and one of America’s foremost pianists, continued to be an overseeing presence. He could inspire but he was someone to be in awe of, and Goode remembers how he made you aware of just how rigorous and demanding music was: ‘Playing well and doing the best you could, really trying to find the truth in music, was the most important thing.’ You had a long way to fall. Discovering what’s in a text isn’t an uncomplicated notion, for a start, and not surprisingly it took time for Goode to find his path and to learn from the force of Serkin’s intensity – a characteristic of the great man in everything, but a danger for the pupil in that it could lead to a distortion of one’s own impulses.
‘They were the most intense lessons I’d ever had with anyone,’ Goode has recalled. He warmly acknowledges, too, the counterinfluence he found in the teaching of Mieczysπaw Horszowski, from whom one ‘learned a lot about the way the music was composed’.
Fast forward now to the 1987-88 season in New York and to an acclaimed Beethoven sonata cycle at the hall known as 92nd Street Y. This led to a recital at Carnegie Hall – Goode’s first, at the age of 47 – and to recordings of the sonatas brokered by Elektra Nonesuch and Book-of-the-Month Club. Enter Gramophone readers! When the set appeared in the UK in 1994 it was adopted as a recommended recording by Gramophone and has sat comfortably alongside the best ever since. Goode has stayed faithful to Nonesuch, with records that are collectable for their look as well as recommendable for the quality within.
He will be 69 this year and one hopes for many more recordings, but the harvest is already rich and consistent. There have been six Mozart concertos with the conductorless Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, and the C minor K491 demands mention: there is no better version in the catalogue. A set of the five Beethoven concertos with the Budapest Festival Orchestra and Iván Fischer has also been widely recognised as without peer if you insist on a truly collaborative venture in these great pieces. Then there have been Mozart and Chopin solo recitals, the Chopin perplexing those who like Goode in Beethoven but maintain that first-class Beethoven and first-class Chopin can’t exist in one skin. But, as Goode said to me, what 19th-century composer matches Beethoven’s tragic heroism better than Chopin?
Yet for a one-pick choice I’m making it his Bach Partitas. He has done as much as any important pianist to reclaim Bach for the piano, admitting to an anti-stylistic prejudice (‘it’s imprisoning’) and believing that when you look at Bach through the sound, the instruments are left behind: ‘Your ear is giving you an opening – to find something fitting in your quest for expressiveness on whatever you have at your disposal.’
We have had to wait for this bounty but, as the clarinettist Richard Stoltzman said: ‘Can you imagine Richard if he had become a well-known soloist at 25? He would have missed the depth and breadth of intensive meditation on music which only time has made possible. His concentration is what separates him from most musicians.’