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Classical Notes

Getting back to Beethoven

Pianist Richard Goode is releasing recordings of Beethoven's five concertos. Pianist Richard Goode is releasing recordings of Beethoven's five concertos. (DEBORAH FEINGOLD)
By David Weininger
Globe Correspondent / March 13, 2009
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Though Richard Goode is playing Mozart during his current engagement with the Boston Symphony, the composer with whom he's most closely identified is Beethoven. His recording of the composer's 32 piano sonatas - released on the Nonesuch label in 1993 - stands as one of the most important statements made about this music in recent decades. In their subtlety and dedication to the integrity of the score, his performances bear comparison with those of his teacher, Rudolf Serkin.

Goode's career developed slowly, but his reputation was solidified in the late 1980s, when he played a seven-concert series of all 32 Beethoven sonatas at New York's 92nd Street Y. I was at the last of those concerts, which included the composer's final sonata, Opus 111, in C minor. I have not heard a more profound realization of the piece since.

So it comes as something of a surprise that Goode has only just gotten around to recording the other large block of Beethoven's piano repertoire: the five concertos. His readings - taped in 2005 with the Budapest Festival Orchestra and conductor Iván Fischer - will be released in early May.

Goode says that the new project took so long to get to not because of doubts about the music, but due to his general wariness about concerto recordings. "The sonatas I could do on my own time," he says by phone from the basement of Klavierhaus, the New York piano restoration firm where Goode is practicing while his apartment is renovated. "And, as happened with [the sonatas], if I wasn't pleased with the way it turned out, I could go back in another session. Or even in another year.

"That's not so easy when you're sitting there with an orchestra and the clock is ticking," he continues. In fact, the only other concerto recordings he's done are of some Mozart concertos with the chamber orchestra Orpheus. Even then, he says, "I remember being a little uncomfortable because . . . I didn't feel that, well, if things don't go so well today, there's another day to do it."

Goode has always carried the reputation of a pianist who has delved deeply into the work of a few composers instead of ranging synoptically over broad swaths of music history. Besides Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, and Schubert have been at the center of his universe for years. A more recent passion is Chopin, whose works he has been pairing with Bach on recital programs.

It's music that he shied away from for a long time. "I think I might have been taking a little bit from [Alfred] Brendel's comment that a pianist couldn't play Beethoven and Chopin equally well," he explains. "But I found that, as with other composers, if you have affinity with them at all, playing a lot of their music and really immersing yourself in it is the key."

A particular focus has been the mazurkas, the Polish folk dance that Chopin used as a vehicle for some of his most adventurous writing. "They're somewhat private pieces in many ways," Goode says, "much more than the ballades or scherzi. As you play them and keep on performing them, you internalize their rhythms more and more. They become more and more part of you and you can do different things with them each time."

One area in which Goode rarely ventures is modern and contemporary music. Apart from the Debussy Preludes and Bartok's Third Piano Concerto, there is little in his repertoire written after the 19th century. "I guess the short answer is that I have to identify very closely with the music I'm playing," he replies when asked about it. "And unless I can I don't play it. And I'm so wedded to the tonal idea that much of Schoenberg is basically a foreign language for me and has always remained so despite my efforts."

One place he's able to rechannel his exploratory impulses is at the Marlboro Music Festival, the venerable summer chamber music gathering which he has co-directed since 2000. The festival prizes study and rehearsal, and allows its participants to dip into all kinds of repertoire. He fondly remembers a 2007 performance of the final scene of Strauss's "Der Rosenkavalier," playing the piano and accompanying three singers.

Still, he clearly believes there is much to be learned from the composers who form the basis of his worldview. He notes that he played the same Mozart concerto he's currently performing - K.456, in B-flat - at Tanglewood in 2007, and was surprised to find that the orchestra hadn't played it much. The same thing happened during a more recent performance with the London Symphony Orchestra.

"It's a particular pleasure to encourage an orchestra to get to know a great Mozart concerto that's lesser known than the ones around it. There's a certain modesty to this piece, but it's a continuous flow of marvelously inspired ideas."

Information: 888-266-1200; www.bso.org

Haitink downloads
Along with other notable anniversaries, 2009 marks the 80th birthday of Bernard Haitink, the BSO's venerated conductor emeritus. To celebrate, the Dutch broadcaster Radio 4 is offering free downloads of three Haitink performances with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the ensemble with which he holds the deepest relationship. The recordings - of Bizet's Symphony in C, Schumann's First Symphony, and Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony - are available from the Radio 4 website through Sunday at haitink.radio4.nl/en.

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