Phlegm mars otherwise brilliant recital

By Chris Wroblewski

Chicago is fortunate to be a performance stop for the world’s great piano recitalists. This concert season has seen recitals by Mikhail Pletnev, Arcadi Volodos, Alicia de Larrocha, and Alfred Brendel, among others. The list reads like a who’s-who of outstanding talent and brilliance. Of the most recent concerts, the American-born Richard Goode, provides a wonderful example of all that is right with the piano recital scene in Chicago, and, unfortunately, all that is wrong with the concert-going public. The country’s foremost interpreter of Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart was overwhelmed by an audience that refused to get out of the way. Coughing, electronic beeps, and inconsiderate program-droppers managed to obscure and delay the program to a degree rarely seen outside of New York. If there were ever any evidence against the theory that the amount of coughing is inversely related to the quality, however, this concert is it. Between the distractions, Goode offered a well thought out and well played program of Bach, Chopin, and Beethoven that may have peers in the recital world, but no superiors.

The program began with a relaxed performance of Bach’s French Suite No. 1 in D Minor. Seemingly new to the pianist’s repertoire (Goode read from the score), it was presented from a romantic point of view that isn’t frequently used in such works anymore. The recent trend in Bach playing has been to emulate the harpsichord, but Goode seems to want nothing to do with that. Sometimes this works to the music’s benefit and sometimes not. Goode’s liberal application of the pedal worked well for his slow yet beautiful rendition of the sarabande, but was less gratifying in the following minuets. Here, Goode’s melodic ornamentation was often muddled. Overall, it was an interesting approach to hear, but would have benefited greatly from the crystalline perfection of the Partita that opened the second half of the recital.

The remainder of the first half consisted of a variety of pieces by Chopin. Every great Chopin player has brought something special to their interpretations: Horowitz brought out the sexual tension, Rubinstein the power and grace. Goode brings out the smile. Goode’s conception of the Nocturne in E Major, Op. 62, No. 2 is like a familiar dream that one is reluctant to wake from. He uses a beautiful, subtle phrasing that produces exciting climaxes and sparkling runs. The same can be said about the mazurkas that followed without pause. Here Goode favors the dance elements of the works. Not that he ignores the emotional undercurrents. To me, Goode acknowledges this, but with a wink and a grin, as if the dance were paramount.

If Goode’s status as a first rank Chopin player were ever in doubt, his mesmerizing account of Chopin’s Barcarolle in F-sharp Major leaves no doubts. The program notes indicate that the barcarolle is descended from the gondoliers of Venice, aimed at imitating the motion of a boat. Goode takes this to heart in his flowing interpretation. Clearly the highlight of the recital, every turn the melody took seemed to follow naturally from the underlying current. The results were hypnotic. It seemed that even the pervasive coughing had stopped in recognition of Goode’s tremendous performance.

After intermission, Goode presented Bach’s Partita No. 1 in B-flat Major. Unlike the French Suite, no score was used and the results were immediate. Texture was clearer and the counterpoint was strongly delineated. Goode brought a youthful energy to the music that had only occurred in smaller doses in the first half. Textures were light and airy and the quick tempo posed no problem. The pianist’s fine ear for detail was on display, bringing all of Bach’s nuances out. I would have liked more of this in the earlier French Suite. The difficult concluding Giga sounded effortless. Only the finest players can achieve this while exploiting the whole dynamic range of the piano.

Critics have always warmed to Goode’s Beethoven. His 1994 release of the complete sonatas received superlatives from many quarters, but this performance of the Sonata No. 31 in A-flat Major was interesting, but certainly not definitive. Goode employed some odd tempo fluctuations that weren’t always to the music’s benefit. The first movement sounded too labored. It got off the ground, however, in the second movement, which was more intense and energetic than the first, but not entirely distinctive. The third movement was the most successful, though marred by the audience. The beautiful adagio that begins it was sensitively played. Goode’s conception pointed out the similarities with the preceding Bach, drawing connections that aren’t often explored and between the outbreaks of coughing one could hear what critics have been talking about. The movement was rounded off with an intense, foot-stomping reading of the fugue.

In sum, a wonderful recital, in spite of epidemic problems in the audience. Besides a French Suite that Goode needs a little more time to digest, Chicago was treated to outstanding Chopin and Bach as well as well-crafted Beethoven. If you missed the concert, I can only recommend that you don’t miss any in the series next season. Kissin, Kovacevich, Lupu, Schiff, Serkin, Perahia (a personal favorite), Brendel, Pollini, and Barenboim will all be making solo appearances. There will be no shortage of great pianists visiting Chicago in the future. The brilliance of Richard Goode is only the tip of the iceberg.