The pandemic preempted Richard Goode’s annual appearance with Philadelphia Chamber Music Society (PCMS) last spring, where he would have played Beethoven as part of the celebration surrounding that composer’s 250th birthday. The eminent pianist returned to Philly on March 31, albeit through a computer screen for most people, in a livestreamed recital from Benjamin Franklin Hall. Even if the format was new, it felt good to see Goode: Here’s another small sign of things returning to some kind of natural order, a hope for light at the end of the coronavirus tunnel.
Perhaps no artist is more associated with PCMS, and as executive director Miles Cohen pointed out in preconcert remarks, Goode’s relationship with Tony Checchia, the company’s founder, spans six decades. The 77-year-old pianist shows no signs of slowing down, and the program he put together here—Beethoven making an appearance alongside Bach and Debussy—is one of the best I’ve heard from him in recent years.
A case for the piano
Goode employed a light touch for the Overture of Bach’s Partita No. 4 in D Major, BWV 828, but that doesn’t mean he sacrificed precise intonation in search of passion. As usual, his playing married exacting standards with deep feeling. This came through especially in the Allemande section here, which had a lovely elliptical quality, and in the Aria, which was mischievous without being showy.
I often think the full effect of this music comes through best on a harpsichord—Scott Ross’s playful and quietly haunting account remains my gold standard—but Goode made a convincing case for its power on a modern piano.
Supreme elegance reigned in Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 28 in A Major, Op. 101, though once again, it would be shortsighted to view Goode’s choices as lacking expressivity. He linked the first and third movements together somewhat ingeniously, taking the opening Allegretto ma non troppo at a somewhat freer tempo that seemed to anticipate the “longing” of the Adagio. The Vivace alla marcia was appropriately lively, and for all its trickiness, the concluding Allegro felt less forbidding than usual. Performances like this make me wish this sonata were programmed as often as its name-brand cousins: Moonlight, Hammerklavier, Appassionata.
Selections from Debussy’s Preludes were the program’s stylistic outlier, their heady impressionistic quality a noticeable divergence from the black-and-white world of Bach and Beethoven. Goode didn’t try to force a link. Goode showed the full color palette Debussy employed across both of the works' books, from the warm Mediterranean sunshine of La Puerta del Vino to the spindly spectral world of Ondine.
In my experience, Goode doesn’t always encore, but here he offered Schubert’s Impromptu No. 3 in G-flat Major. It was a refreshingly uncomplicated performance of one of Schubert’s great lyrical statements.
Some critics have taken Goode to task in the past for austerity in his performance style. He’s certainly not a pianist who draws attention to himself while on the bench, but I’ve always found this characterization somewhat unfair. His interpretations tend toward the traditional, but they’re not cold, and he communes genuinely with the music he plays. And thanks to the close microphones of the PCMS livestream, I learned that he also hums.
Image description: A photo of pianist Richard Goode, a white man in his seventies wearing a black suit, playing a grand piano on the warm-colored wood stage of the Perelman Center.
What, When, Where
Richard Goode, piano. Recital featuring selections from J.S. Bach, Beethoven, and Debussy. Philadelphia Chamber Music Society. Livestreamed on March 31, 2021, and available to stream for free until April 3, 2021. (215) 569-8080 or pcmsconcerts.org.