The Storm Within the Calm: Richard Goode Plays Schumann and Chopin

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schumann, Chopin: Richard Goode (piano), Carnegie Hall, New York, 25.4.2012 (SSM)

Robert Schumann, Kinderszenen, Op. 15
Kreisleriana, Op. 16
Frederic Chopin Nocturne in E flat Major, Op. 55, No. 2
Scherzo No. 3 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 39 Waltz in A-flat Major, Op. 64, No.3
Waltz in C-sharp Minor, Op. 64, No. 2
Waltz in F Major, Op. 34, No. 3
Ballade No. 3 in A-flat Major, Op. 47


Chopin: Mazurka in C Major, Op. 24, No. 2
Beethoven:  Scherzo from Sonata No. 18 in E-flat Major, Op. 31, No. 3
Janácek:  From On the Overgrown Path, Book I

It is always a surprise when you hear a musician perform works outside of what, rightly or wrongly, you consider his standard repertory. Richard Goode playing Schumann and Chopin is not as radically unexpected as early music specialist Nikolaus Harnoncourt performing Porgy and Bess, but he is most often thought to be a specialist in Bach, Beethoven and Mozart.

Goode’s recital of works by two geniuses of early Romantic piano music was top-notch in almost every regard, though perhaps not quite on the level of Claudio Arrau playing Schumann or Artur Rubinstein performing Chopin. The recital was musical poetry from start to finish, and the audience was captivated.

Since the urtext of the first work played, the 13 Kinderszenen, has no tempo markings (except for “Ritter vom Steckenpferd), many performances of these miniatures are all over the place in length. The famous “Träumerei”, for example, takes Lang Lang 4:11 to complete while Horowitz in one version does it in 2:24. Most of Goode’s tempo choices were well considered, and only in “Fürchtenmachen” would I have wanted a little more speed and “fright.” I liked the way that in “Am Kamin” he was able to emulate two lines of voices talking in front of a fire.

Although Schumann’s masterpiece for piano, the Fantasie in C major, was not played here, it is interesting to see this work as the missing third of a series of increasingly more complicated compositions. Even if the Fantasie was started before the two works on this program, it was not revised until after the Opus 15 and 16 were completed. This leads to a clear progression in terms of complexity, maturity and probably psychological disturbance. The opening “Ausserst bewegt” of Kreislerianastarts with a theme similar to the central section of the Fantasie and continues in an almost schizophrenic manner with all except the final movement played in extremes: “Sehr” is the adjective used to describe all the movement’s tempi. Goode could have taken the virtuoso’s way of playing the fast sections as loudly and speedily as possible, but he opted for a more controlled, crafted and ultimately a more satisfying reading of the score.

The same poetic emphasis was used to shape the Chopin pieces. The Nocturne in E-Flat Op. 55, No.2 received an almost classical reading, never raising its voice even in the crescendo from p to ff near the end of the score.

Virtuosity can’t be avoided in Chopin’s Scherzos and Goode provided proof that he could play runs of octaves as well as anyone. The Scherzo in C-sharp Minor, Op. 39 goes back and forth from frenetic to gentle arpeggios, and Goode performed this difficult work without unduly disturbing the calm that imbued the entire recital.

The three waltzes caught the strong rhythms of dance, but here a lighter touch may have been needed. Having grown up listening to Dino Lipatti’s 1950 recording of the waltzes has jaded me, and I’m sure many others, into being unable to hear this music without comparing it to Lipatti’s version, to the detriment of any other.

The final work, the Ballade No. 3 in A-Flat Major, seemed almost like a recap of all the preceding Chopin. It begins with lilting delicate harmonies of a conversation-like melody, but soon massive chords mutate the original melody into a fiery and demanding emotional statement.

Of the three encores that Goode played, the Beethoven Scherzo from his Sonata No. 18 in E-flat Major was the most moving: a reminder of how great a Beethoven interpreter Goode is.

What can’t be analyzed and dissected here is the charisma that Goode brings with him. Walking onstage as if he were taking a leisurely stroll, he sits down and plays with an almost eerie calm, immediately capturing the audience’s attention for the duration of the concert – as only a few master pianists can.

Stan Metzger