The first week of May turned out to be something of a Beethoven week at Carnegie Hall, as three pianists, Richard Goode, Evgeny Kissin and Maurizio Pollini performed several of his piano sonatas. At a recital on May 1, 69-year-old Goode played the last three, Nos. 30, 31 and 32, considered some of Beethoven's most daunting. In the American pianist's hands, they were not forbiddingly complex and tortuous masterpieces, but inspirational pieces full of light, air and beauty.
The first of the three, No. 30, started out with clear fluid watercolor notes. His sound was light, almost diaphanous, and he gently caressed the keys to create sound like the shimmering surface of water. Even the dramatic second half of the first movement was lightweight, with no hint of solid German ponderousness. He seamlessly pulled the audience through the variations in the second movement, which he played compellingly and with great beauty and allure. The trills at the end of the movement were particularly luminous.
One unusual aspect of Goode's playing was his liberal use of the una corda (soft pedal.) On a grand piano this pedal shifts the entire keyboard and action slightly to the right so that instead of the standard three strings per note, the hammer strikes only two. The resulting sound is not only slightly muted but also less sharp -- this may be a bad example, but to me it feels like cutting a block of cheese through a thick plastic wrap. The edge of the note (or cheese) becomes more blunt. Goode made frequent use of the una corda in many of the quiet passages, which is something few pianists do, considering that the una corda not only makes the sound quieter but changes its tonal quality noticeably, and most reserve using una corda for infrequent special effects. In Goode's soft-edged interpretation of Beethoven, the effect worked well, but he is a rare case.
The next, No. 30 was also very freely flowing and natural. While many of us associate Beethoven's music, particularly his late works, with doubt and torment, Goode's music is not hampered by any of that. He played like a shining guiding star, always pulling listeners forward.
The second half started off with a selection of six Bagatelles from Op. 119. The pieces are small and whimsical, and Goode played them with Schumann-like vivid characterization.
No.32 was not as imposing and formidable as it is usually made out to be. Rather than building the music up to monumental heights, he swiftly drew us forward. There are certain things we expect in this work if only because it was the last piano sonata Beethoven wrote -- things like the struggles of Beethoven as a deaf composer, the conflicts of his difficult life and things like that -- but Goode's interpretation was surprisingly lightweight. It was lofty and otherworldly, but in a beautiful way rather than a spiritual way. In beauty of tone, he was unparalleled.
I have never heard Beethoven this fluid and light before -- yet, while Goode's approach may not be standard, its appeal is very strong. In certain moments such as trills, the tonal beauty and luminosity of his playing is breathtaking. Does Beethoven have to always sound like a tormented genius? Clearly, Goode thinks not.
Goode has recorded the complete Beethoven sonatas on the Nonsesuch label and a few of them can be found on Youtube as well: