United States Beethoven: Richard Goode (piano), Carnegie Hall, New York City. 1.5.2013 (DS)
Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 30 in E Major, Op. 109
Piano Sonata No. 31 in A-flat Major, Op. 110
Selections from Bagatelles, Op. 119
Piano Sonata No. 32 in C Minor, Op. 111
Normally, sounds signal a great concert. But in this case, the gelled silence hovering between each Beethoven sonata and an outburst of applause evoked the profundity of the sublime experience. It was Carnegie Hall. And Richard Goode with Beethoven (for it’s got to be performer and composer, together) lifted us, weightless, off the ground. Was this awe, ecstasy or spiritual relief? To see the beyond, through an experience that not only lifts but grounds us, and drops us into that one exquisite moment where contradiction has no meaning—those are far and few between.
So how does this happen? How do a pianist’s technical prowess and the black notes on a page move a mass of people? You don’t have to be able to analyze (or even identify) the sophisticated formal experimentation present in Beethoven’s last three sonatas; Goode’s masterly approach revealed the power of the narrative in each one. His poignant shifts in dynamics highlighted thematic material. His brave yet calculated tempo changes moved us without hesitation in and out of distinct passages. And his artful phrasing translated globs of Beethoven’s famously motivic material into a world full of rooms, in which we would find the mysteries embedded.
These qualities convey how Goode played all three late sonatas—with an equal sense of short- and long-term vision. The opening of No. 30 is a brief yet flurrying vivace; it could have stood alone like a perfect blooming flower. But it was the culmination of the portioned bits of movement and the attentive passion applied to every section and variation that mapped out the journey of each work. The success of the short-term decisions became evident in the extraordinary endings to which he brought us. No. 30 went through myriad sparkling mini-variations, surrounded by the occasional bent towards chaos. A final deep and sudden shift of clarity re-announced the theme, which Goode punctuated fiercely, pushing the piano to its percussive limits without losing any of the lyricism.
Each sonata only seemed to outdo the one before it. Goode ushered us into No. 31 with a magisterial approach to its broad themes. Yet he immediately highlighted the contrasting qualities in each section which constitute the fascinating material leading up to the fugue finale. He sneaked in this canonic form, seemingly out of nowhere. Before we knew it, each chasing voice ran forth like a widening brook gaining momentum as it flows down a mountain. While Goode allowed each layer to mingle into dense experimental conversation, he still found a reserve of power to overlay the fourth thematic entrance with limpid grandeur, pulling into the end, triumphantly. The fugue left us mesmerized, and yet, it did not overpower, but imbued us with its spirit. Why else were audience members whistling its melody on the way to the intermission cash bar?
But it was the end of Beethoven’s last sonata—No. 32, in its unorthodox two-movement form—that not only succeeded but surpassed paper score, wooden piano, fleshy fingers, and waves of sound. Throughout, Goode expressed every musical quality without hesitation. We passed through feelings of urgency and anxiety. Theatrical images mixed in with chaotic rumblings. Moments of lucidity twisted into passages of searching identity, until a door opened onto the simple figure of a trill—two notes repeated in fast succession. Performer and audience moved out of earthly reach, floating to a sudden ephemeral pianissimo. The moment stretched out in seeming endlessness. The repetitive notes shifted us off the page and into a feeling of existential excitement, lightly releasing and yet wholly synthesizing all that had come before. It was the ultimate synthesis, the penultimate release. Our gratitude was still and silent. This is what happens when it’s Beethoven—and someone who knows how to play it.
But what about the interlude of Bagatelles after intermission, you ask. What were they doing in there? Well, it makes perfect sense. Tiny little pieces (one clocks in at 10 seconds!) full of imagination with no responsibility to go anywhere or be anything but their own addition to the jigsaw of life. They remind us, especially as played by Goode with such poignant character, that before we reach the grand mysterious end, all the living is in the moment.