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Review | Pianist Richard Goode performs Beethoven sonatas with sharp inquiry

By Robert Battey,

Fritz Reiner, the legendary conductor, once led a week of rehearsals of the Chicago Symphony in Beethoven’s “Eroica” symphony. Working without a score, he would stop and start, correct wrong rhythms, mention bar numbers and cue every entrance. At the performance, he brought out the score and conducted from it, turning pages as he went. When the principal cellist asked him why afterward, he said, “when I look at the score, I get ideas.”

Pianist Richard Goode, a Beethoven specialist for most of his long career, played from a score throughout his all-Beethoven recital Thursday, something of an oddity (or even a weakness). But the ideas flowed thick and fast; Goode applied his sharpest powers of inquiry to the most elusive music ever written for the instrument (the final three sonatas), and brought the audience into a new place.

In these sonatas, the deaf composer was writing partly theoretically (the instrument has not yet been invented that can realize some of his acoustical ideas) and partly from a spiritual plane that is both beyond and deeply connected to common humanity. The quiet ecstasy in the last pages of Op. 111 is a true portal to another dimension. But that dimension is not the afterlife, easy as that would be to assume. Beethoven was not well when he wrote the sonata, but neither was he dying; he had five more years and many more masterpieces still to come. Rather, the gentle trills and gossamer harmonies show us a state of grace that transcends anything religion has yet invented.

Goode focused on structure above all. His orotund sound was carefully sculpted, but it was not, by itself, particularly expressive. Indeed, some passages, like the quirky “boogie-woogie” variation in Op. 111, the bleak soundscape that opens the Op. 110 finale, and the angular acrobatics of the same sonata’s scherzo have sounded more dramatic or brilliant in other hands. But Goode’s achievement was of the less-flashy sort; keeping every detail of a large work in proportion so that each shift, each surprise, each eruption meant something beyond itself and was related to other details before and after.

Purely as a pianist, Goode is always a pleasure to listen to; the mark of a great artist is that nothing sounds rushed, no matter how fast he plays or how wide the dynamic range. His technique is a model of efficiency; although he still sometimes moves expressively, he keeps his arms low and quiet, for the most part. Rhythm (without which there is no music) is always paramount.Whether hurling thunderbolts — like the last variation of Op. 109 or the Bagatelle Op. 119 No. 7 — or whether whispering the most gentle themes — the Op. 110 fugue, Goode never played for “effect.”

Battey is a freelance writer.

The recital was the opening concert of the Washington Performing Arts Society’s Piano Masters Series.

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