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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2016 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Concert Review: The Limits of Control

Richard Goode plays the last three Beethoven sonatas.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Ignore the hat: the pianist Richard Goode.
Photograph by Michael Wilson.
When a concert program is abstract in nature and of the utmost seriousness, writing a competent review becomes a challenge. Take, for example, Tuesday night's recital at Carnegie Hall, with pianist Richard Goode playing the last three sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven. Mr. Goode's ability in this repertory is well known and his technique is universally respected. So what is the news quality, the element that separates this fine New York-bred soloist from all the other virtuosos treading the boards of our fair city's concert halls?


The answer: clarity. It was of immediate notice in Mr. Goode's performance of the Sonata No. 30. The ascending and descending runs of the introduction to the first movement had this quality: playful leaps in the right hand that were answered by a rhythmic figure in the left, played at exactly the same dynamic level. Mr. Goode's precise touch and wrist control conquered the chief challenge of the piano: controlling the loud-soft dynamic and giving every printed note an equal voice.

Dynamic differences emerged in the slow-building repetitions of the Prestissimo. Finally, the torrent of arpeggio runs erupted into a furious central section. This was followed by a delicate wind-down, with emphasis on the importance of the underlying harmonies.  In the final Gesangvoll, one could not help but be drawn, fascinated to those Bach-like lower chords being played in support, a powerful, rumbling engine supporting the theme played at the upper end of the keyboard.

The Bach-like ideas come thick and furious in the Op. 31 Sonata, from the opening chords and trill that start the movement before leaping into some very 19th-century legato runs, played here with accuracy and grace. The following Allegro also has a hint of mockery for the 18th century with its starched-collar staccato chords, played with great gusto here by Mr. Goode. The bursting fireworks of notes (returning always to the top of the keyboard) point the way forward.

Mr. Goode achieved extraordinary color of tone in the short Adagio, playing the mysterious chords as if at a crossroads, seeming to dither on a single, repeated note before settling for a descending figure that hints at the recitative of the Ninth Symphony. A different, hymn-like idea emerged, before transforming into the last movement, a final fugue that brings the traveler safely home through the soloist's mastery of contrapuntal technique.

Part of the problem with playing a set like this is coming up with an encore. Mr. Goode's innovative solution: to start the second half of the evening with an amuse-bouche: six of Beethoven's eleven Bagatelles. Published among the composer's very last works for the piano (Op. 119) these are tiny, bite-sized pieces of musical thought designed to instruct the composer's pupils. As played here, these works (ranging from the expansive themes of No. 6, almost a sonata movement in its own right) to the ten-second frenzy of No. 10, they exerted considerable charm and humor. In the last a charming tune that ends with the soloist using the upper reaches of the piano to evoke the chiming of a music box.

The two movements of the last Sonata (No. 32) couldn't be more different. The first starts with a very Beethovenian motto theme, stern and repeated in the left hand to the point of obsession with its components, its working, its very nature as a repetitive theme examined, repeated, taken apart and repeated again. It contrasts with what follows, a breezy set of variations where the soloist's left hand appears to wander, creating what sounds suspiciously like jazz a century before that genre's birth. Mr. Goode played this last movement with subtlety, reverence and yes, swing when needed.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.