Shoot the Pianist, or Shoot the Piano?

29/04/2015

 Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Debussy, and Schumann: Richard Goode (piano), Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 21.4.2015 (BJ) 

Mozart: Adagio in B minor, K. 540
Beethoven: Piano Sonata in F-sharp major, Op. 78
Brahms: Eight Piano Pieces, Op. 76
Debussy: Children’s Corner
Schumann: Humoreske in B-flat major, Op. 20

 

For a long time now, Richard Goode has occupied a deservedly exalted place on the American musical scene. His reputation has been built mainly on his affinity for the core Austro-German classics such as Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms, and those three composers made the first half of this Philadelphia Chamber Music Society a locus classicus for what might be called mainstream Goode repertoire..

It was therefore something of a surprise to find myself enjoying the performance of Debussy’s Children’s Corner suite more than anything else on the program. Goode found in these six unpretentious pieces a characteristic and very winning charm.

If I suggest that the rest of the program carried less conviction under his hands, I must point out that reviewing a keyboard player involves one element not shared with reviewing any other kind of soloist. Other instrumentalists, as well as singers, carry their instruments with them: a pianist is usually at the mercy of the instrument he finds waiting for him, and it is not always easy to distinguish the effect that instrument has on his performance from his own artistic and technical qualities.

It happened that, on the evening under review, several of the works played suffered from the fact that the piano began, quite early on, to go unusually drastically out of tune. Perhaps it was easier to ignore the problem in the Debussy than in the Austro-German pieces because of its less classically based harmonic language (and perhaps also because it was played directly after the intermission, during which some repairs to the instrument had been effected).

Yet there is also another consideration that complicates the critic’s task. If, again, I suggest that Goode’s tone at the upper dynamic levels seemed on this occasion rather harsh and metallic, in contrast with the richness and warmth I remember from his past performances, I cannot declare with any certainty, as between the way he played and the way the piano sounded, which was cause and which was effect. Was the way he played a consequence of the condition of the piano, or did the fortes and fortissimos sound harsh because of the way he played?

But in any case, even if on that point I take the position more sympathetic to the performer, it seemed to me also in the Mozart-to-Brahms repertoire that Goode was in less than his most beguiling form. Certainly there was some beautiful music-making to be heard, especially in the neglected Mozart masterpiece that began the program and in the quieter of the Brahms pieces, but beauty was too often juxtaposed with less compelling qualities. Aside from that harsh forte tone, Goode’s playing in the faster parts of the Beethoven and Schumann works often degenerated into mere scrambling, and in rhythmic groups like the dotted-eighth-note/sixteenth-note/eighth-notes figure on which the theme of the Beethoven sonata’s finale is founded, the sixteenth note tended simply to disappear in the rush.

It may be, as I have hinted, unfair to blame an artist of such established talent for these shortcomings. But whatever their cause, they had the effect of spoiling what had promised to be a memorable evening’s music.

 

Bernard Jacobson

 

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