Beethoven was here
We in the classical biz have heard it many times before from classical musicians and their publicists. "These performances reveal the true intentions of the composer." Or that some performer or other "doesn't shine the spotlight on him/herself," but is instead "merely a vessel for the composer's wishes." Oh really? It's like every wine distributor who's ever poured me a California chardonnay or pinot noir at a tasting, then claimed that "our wines are unusually Burgundian in style." At which point I'm immediately reminded of Lake Wobegon, where all the children are "well above average." Except that unlike Garrison, these other folks aren't winking when they make their extravagant and logically impossible claims.
You can say whatever you want about your performance of, say, Beethoven. But it's the actual performance that counts, not the words. Or to paraphrase Duke Ellington, it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that schwung. And when you've heard Beethoven done the way The Wife and I, along with 500 or so of our closest friends, heard it done at Smith College on Saturday night by pianist Richard Goode, you can't be fooled anymore.
Mind you, the 69-year old American pianist himself regards faithfulness to the musical score as the cardinal virtue of classical interpretation, having had that virtue instilled by one of his teachers, the legendary Rudolf Serkin. But as he told us in a pre-concert conversation, Goode also prizes a degree of freedom in his interpretations, especially as he's getting older. Faithfulness and freedom. Can they go together? You bet they can — if you're Richard Goode. And as he demonstrated again with his program of Beethoven's last three sonatas (with six bagatelles tossed in to lighten the mood), Goode brings Beethoven to life so vividly that it seems as if you were in the presence of the composer, and that these works were as new, fresh, bold, crazy and sublime as when Beethoven thought them up and wrote them down.
How does he do it? It starts with a depth of knowledge of the score that only comes from decades of study and practice. As Goode told us before the concert, he still, after all these years, experiences epiphanies about what Beethoven meant by this or that indication, or how this phrase in a sonata relates to another phrase, even if it's one or two movements later. It then takes shape in an overall concept of the piece, in which every minute nuance is underlined and every connection made, but all are placed in the largest possible context. In the case of Saturday's concert, that context was larger than any one work. This, we were surprised to hear, was the first time Goode had played the Sonatas Nos. 30, 31 and 32 together in the same evening, and he was determined to help us hear them not just as three separate works, but as one large musical organism. And finally, it flows forth from a technique so finely honed that even Beethoven's thickest passage speak clearly, and with a tone of richness and variety that could not be mistaken with that of any other pianist.
Just to take one moment as an example: In the fourth variation of the second movement of the Sonata No. 32, Opus 111 (starting at 8:34 in Goode's CD version, page 607 in this downloadable score), Beethoven starts with a quiet mysterious murmur in the lowest depths of the piano of his day. Then rather than repeat the passage as he had all the others up to that point in the movement, he instead swoops up to the highest notes on his piano, like a magnificent bird taking wing, and continues with a passage that sounds like a celestial music box. Each color, the bass murmur and the treble tinkling, was painted with maximum character. But the shift from one to another — I swear it knocked the wind out of me. No one alive today renders this contrast more magically than Goode. And fine as it is on the CD, it was even more spellbinding in the concert. He's found something new in these measures, and thus can make more of the whole piece — the whole trilogy of sonatas, really. Amazing. This is how to play Beethoven. Accept no substitutes. And when other musicians or their handlers claim to have the goods, go back to Goode.