A Great Day for Classical Music: Richard Goode Records Beethoven's Piano Concertos

06/05/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

If you're in the mood to hear five of the greater piano concertos ever written --- and if my experience is any guide, it's a very easy mood to slip into --- then Richard Goode's your man. Oh, there are other pianists who have climbed this mountain, but of the living practicioners, Goode stands alone. He's given the bulk of his creative life to Beethoven. And it shows.

Beethoven had an ego as big as his talent and emotions that ran hotter than a blast furnace. He had heroes; he liked the idea of heroism. And as a composer, he tended to write grand heroic music. (No one has ever admired his Ninth Symphony more than Stalin, who saw it as a great propaganda weapon.)

But Beethoven began his career as a pianist, and his writing for piano is something else. The 32 piano sonatas are the darlings of music critics; they show the enormous growth of The Complete Sonatas. I can only echo the reviews I've seen --- Goode understands Beethoven, has absorbed this work so fully that, when he plays, it almost feels as if he's composing or improvising.

As legendary as those recordings are, I prefer Goode's edition of Beethoven's Complete Piano Concertos. Shallow me: I like the colors of an orchestra. And even more, I like the interplay of the instruments. The Concertos are, simply, more available music.

Their comparative directness is a trick. Or rather, a triumph. The point of Beethoven's piano concertos is their inevitability. If you listen at all carefully, you can almost see him thinking: this, then this, then this. Rather like Mozart ---- a stream of brilliance. But that was veneer; it wasn't Beethoven. Composing came hard for him, and his manuscripts were a mess of scribbles and reconsiderations. What you are hearing is thought at its greatest possible level of refinement, emotion that's been edited and carefully parceled out.

If Richard Goode's name is not familiar, that's almost his design. He's a scholar of the music he loves, not a brash showman --- he was 47 before he gave his first solo recital in Carnegie Hall. He plays, he teaches, he reads. And the deeper the dive, the richer the music. It seems right that he was the first American-born pianist to record all the Beethoven sonatas.

The drama of Goode's playing is that he reduces the distance between the listener and the composer. He's not looking for fresh interpretations. He knows what's there. I find his description of Beethoven admirable: "Beethoven's music is immensely powerful and positive. It is completely satisfying. Beethoven's music is like a meal made up of all the basic food groups. There is nothing left out."

Like Beethoven, Goode has Big Ideas and Grand Goals. "Music takes all the possible feelings we have," he says. "And by somehow ordering them and making something meaningful out of them, music creates a sense of harmony that maybe we can assimilate and carry away."

I was listening to the Concertos the other night, sometimes giving my attention to Goode, sometimes admiring the excellence of Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra, sometimes letting the music fade into the background as I read and wrote. It didn't take long for me to feel my spirits rising, my thoughts sharpening, my world shrinking to this admirable music and feeling.

My wife, who had been in the next room, couldn't stay away. She stood behind me. "This is very beautiful," she said. And we were together like that for a while. I'll cherish that moment.

cross-posted from