Richard Goode entertained a crowd of loyalists at a Celebrity Series event at Jordan Hall Saturday night, offering up Beethoven’s last three sonatas, Op. 109, 110, and 111, with six of the Op. 119 Bagatelles thrown in for good measure. On my way home, I was transported to an episode from Star Trek: The Next Generation, one of several featuring the quirky character Reginold Barclay. Quoting Wikipedia:
In the episode “The Nth Degree“, Barclay’s brain is taken over by an ancient race from the center of the Milky Way galaxy, the Cytherians, radically increasing his intellect. Under their influence, Barclay seizes command of the Enterprise-D and brings the ship to a confrontation with the Cytherians, who explain to Picard that they only desire an exchange of information with the Federation. After the exchange, the Cytherians return the Enterprise-D to Federation space, leaving Barclay with the memory of his interaction and an enhanced ability at chess.
Let’s be clear for any Star Trek fans: Goode was not the Reggie character. That role was reserved for the audience. Goode’s role was that of the Cytherian who, innocently enough, reached out from across the stars to transport us through Beethoven’s galaxy. That said, Goode looks more like Peanut’s Schroeder than a Cytherian, though his heels were often arched up, while Schroeder’s toes are always pointing up. But then Schroeder has neither bench nor pedals.
We spanned light years in minutes, it seemed. Goode’s extraordinary focus and concentration (despite using scores) held us rapt and shuttled us through time and space. Beethoven made simple. Or, late Beethoven made ultra-musical, served up with the works: fun, funny, raucous (only occasionally), sad, poignant, lilting, and arrogant and pushy (when appropriate). Music full of song and dance, a tribute to the occasional drink, and so much more. To ascribe these qualities to specific movements or themes would be irrelevant. It all came together pretty seamlessly.
All aboard the Starship Goode.
But this was not rocket science. No need for a tool kit or reverse engineering development sections—though I’m sure Goode has done plenty of that for himself, taking Beethoven apart and reassembling him, over and over, going where not so many have gone before, to arrive at what we perceive as such a natural affinity for Beethoven’s music. Hard (but fun) work, to make something sound so natural. This was über-friendly, warm music-making.
There were worlds of contrast created within these late sonata movements, but almost deceptively couched (like the multiple motives and ideas in Mozart’s sonata forms) in well-conceived structure and flow. Especially the relationship between movements. You could say there was less contrast between movements, but the contrast was on a different plane (so to speak).
The first movement to Op. 111 was projected as introduction to the extended (and final) second variation movement. Of course we couldn’t know that until we’d arrived. And the thematic material of the opening phrase of the first movement, so often jarringly exaggerated, was just right. That Goode hears the simple opening of these variations as a variation of the opening to the sonata—mirrored and refracted but made of the same carbon base, big bang explosion material—meant that we got to hear this, too. Something so simple, but revelatory at that.
Speaking of inversion, is that fugue in Op. 110 really upside down at the end? Or is it upside down at the beginning, and turned right side up to close the sonata!?
After intermission, but before Op. 111, we were treated to works on a different scale: a selection of six bagatelles from Op. 119, Nos. 6-11, totaling five minutes of music. The concentration of material and ideas in these brief works (created with the same Beethoven universal building blocks as the sonatas), played with much wit, charm, and impeccable timing, made them excellent for pairing with these late sonatas, and for balancing the two halves of the program. Two hours passed ever so fast. Beethoven’s universe expanded and condensed in a truly enjoyable Beethoven event.
Goode produced a gorgeous sound, balanced over the keyboard, summoning some sinewy lean sounds when called for, and soulful singing sounds, particularly in the slow movement “lament” of Op. 110. The right hand arpeggios were fun to watch and hear, such a lithe wrist action. It would be fun to hear and see his Appasionata! There was a load of color, but plenty of black and white starkness, too.
The pianist’s rhythm was so well conceived as part of structure, but also as part of the moment, that to comment on it as a separate component to the music-making seems almost beside the point. The music was full of pulse and flow, and the many accelerando’s and stops were exiting, not exotic. The accretion of rhythm in the Op. 111 variations was also just right, with intensity and drive but not jerky, spasmodic, or off balance, eventually leading to that point when time almost stops, just before those final poignant phrases.
One audience member said of Goode after the event: “He channeled Beethoven!”
Was everything perfect? No. Factor in the human condition. While most were holding their breath at the near heart-breaking submission of the end of the Op. 111, there was a mini-outbreak of contagious coughing—something not even a Cytharian could control. Nevertheless, the artistry transcended such human frailties.
Afterwards, I vowed to transcend my frailties at computer chess.