Pianistic Poetry, Insight and Musicality from Richard Goode

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Brahms: Richard Goode (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 12.11.2015.  (GD)

Mozart   Piano Sonata in  A minor K 310
Piano Sonata in  F K 533/494
Brahms  6 Klavierstücke Op. 118
4 Klavierstücke Op. 119


Mozart’s A minor Piano Sonata ( K 310) has, over the years, become subject to all manner of myth and conjecture.The 22 year old Mozart and his mother Maria Anna arrived in Paris in March 1778, as part of a tour in which he promoted his work in the hope of finding a permanent position. His mother was feeling unwell when they arrived, and by July she had died. We know that Mozart arranged all the funeral and burial proceedings. He was obviously affected by his mother’s death. But the letters to his father don’t always tell us to what extent he was in a period mourning. Indeed his father bitterly complained the Wolfgang’s letters to him in this sad period were inappropriately trivial. We know now that the issue of Mozart’s correspondence, particularly to his father, is the subject of much controversy and complexity. But all this lack of knowledge and complexity has not deterred a whole range of biographers and commentators from attributing the Sturm und Drang tone of the sonata to the unhappy event of his mother’s death. Indeed this reduction of a composition, poem, painting, etc. to external circumstances assumes a kind of canonical status in the annals of ‘humanist’ phantasy. It certainly does not explain the relative exuberance and optimism of the ‘Paris’ Symphony K 297, and the Concerto for flute and harp K 299, both composed in Paris at the same time.

Richard Goode was in fine form tonight, launching directly into the minor key drama of the first movement (both halves repeated). Initially I thought Goode’s tempo a bit fast for a movement marked ‘Allegro maestoso’ but he soon won me over with his clear punctuation of the asymmetrical 5, 3 bar phrases; also his sharp delineation of  the ‘left hand’ dissonant chords. The F major slow movement had a wonderful flowing pace, Goode bringing out the warm, spacious lyrical aspect of the movement. The darker aspects  with sombre tremolandos and minor key constellations, with echoes of the turbulent first movement, were powerfully realized. Apart from a 1989 live relay of a Richter performance, I have not heard the halting three-quaver figure which accompanies the drooping main theme of the final Presto, delivered with such insight. And Goode sustained the sensation of restlessness throughout. He made us particularly aware of the brief episode in a radiant A major which intensifies rather than diminishes the tone of turbulence – a paradoxical tonal design realised only by the  very greatest composers.

The coupling of Mozart sonatas with late Brahms turned out to be a most imaginative piece of programming. Brahms is often labelled ‘Romantic’ but classical forms basically permeate much of his output. He also includes elements of pre-classical music, as in the intonations of a Gregorian Dies irae in the closing Intermezzo of Op.118. Goode brought out both the particular and overall design of Op.118. I was immediately impressed by the  way in which Goode projected the contrast between the two impetuous themes in the first Intermezzo in A minor, wreathed in fluid ascending and descending arpeggios. Similarly in the second Intermezzo in A major the way Goode perfectly intoned the warm glow and deep, reflecting chords – a luminous combination of calm and sorrow. The famous Ballade in G minor was unleashed with enormous energy and brio. By way of contrast the F minor Intermezzo was enhanced by the sharp clarity Goode gave to its canonically written figurations contrasted with a more lyrical middle section. Goode produced a wonderful warmth and glow to the F major Romance; its similarity the Schumann’s three romances, Op. 28, well noted. The last Intermezzo is in E flat minor. This key Brahms associated with the gloomiest and bleakest moods. Goode consolidated the opening mysterious  modulations – the intonation of the Gregorian Dies Irae, mentioned above – with the later erupton of stark chords and octaves ‘clothed in strange harmonies, with the most perceptive insight and empathy. This piece has been likened to a ‘strange, haunted Baroque dream’.. Goode came very close to this almost phantasmagoric piece of ‘Profane Illumination’.

Goode played the seemingly conventional opening of K533 with a simplicity that hid a much more intricate design full of contrapuntal potential. It was the great Austrian pianist/composer Arthur Schnabel who once commented that  ‘these sonatas (he was actually referring to the earlier sonatas but his comment could equally apply to the opening of this sonata) are given to children to play as exercise pieces, but the greatest pianists (himself obviously included) find the myriad subtleties immensely difficult, almost impossible,  to convey’. At one or two moments in the opening of the development section Goode sounded slightly hesitant, not giving certain notes their full value, but things got back on track in the development proper. And he was absolutely back on form in the recapitulation, with its exploration of more remote minor keys, and the coda. Goode navigated the opening delicate tracery of the great ‘Andante’ with consummate artistry. The surge of chromatic ripples of the second subject, developed from the opening four-note figure, literally sent ripples down my spine. The climax with its gratingly dissonant canonic patterns had to be heard to be believed. Also this applied to the coda’s wonderful contrast from dissonant anguish to a wonderful serenity. This was playing very much the equal of Schnabel, without the wrong notes. K 533 remained a two movement work, eventually published in 1790. Mozart later re-cycled an F major Rondo of 1876 (at the time of Figaro) to comply with the tree movement sonata standard; hence the two K numbers. Some have complained that this addition is not the equal of the previous movements, especially the second. Goode obviously disagrees, playing all the contrapuntal invention, contrasted with several rondo ‘lighter’ formations with equal empathy and commitment.

I heard some in the audience complaining of Goode’s vocal accompaniments especially in the ‘Andante’ of K 533/494. It was quite loud in places. But I feel that if he had been gagged, we would have lost some of the inspiration.

Op.119 is Brahms’ last composition for piano. It is arguably his most intimate musical statement, Clara Schumann thought of it a ‘special’ work, being pleased that it contained no ‘dissonances’. But apart from this the ‘pieces’ are diverse both in terms of musical invention and imaginative allusion. The opening ‘Adagio’ in B minor is ravishing in it songful intimacy. Goode projected total empathy which each piece; bringing out the contrast in the Intermezzo in E minor between the notes of dark agitation, and the elegance of the central waltz theme.  To some commentators the third intermezzo in C major suggests Schubert, and even Chabrier. in the flourish of arpeggios and the syncopations of the closing bars. Goode also gauged the dialectic between restraint and vehemence in the extended Rhapsody in E flat (from Beethoven ‘the’ heroic key) to perfection.

These late valedictory piano compositions, although not now much played in concert, were adored by pianists as diverse as Schnabel,  Backhaus, Kempff, Serkin and Gould, among others.  On the evidence of tonight’s pianistic poetry, insight and sheer musicality, Goode deserves to join this august company as possibly the last living exponent of a dying European tradition.

Goode was generous in the encores he offered. First, he played a richly contemplative rendition of the third prelude from Debussy’s Book II; La Puerta del Vino . Second, as a wonderful compliment to the Debussy prelude, he gave a sonorously glowing rendition of  Chopin’s Nocturne in E flat Op. 55 no. 2.

Geoff Diggines

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