Monday, February 29, 2016

An Evening of Bach

Richard Goode is one of today’s most thoughtful and sincere musicians, always seeking musical truth rather than personal fame or fortune. I have had the good fortune to witness his many wonderful performances. Mr. Goode had been absent from the Vancouver stage for a good many years, and so it was with great anticipation that I attended his solo recital last evening, dedicated entirely to the music of J. S. Bach.

Goode opened both the first and second half of his recital with a Prelude and Fugue from the second book of the Well-Tempered Clavier. He began his recital with the Prelude and Fugue in C Major, BWV 870. He does not shy away from exploiting (in the best sense of the word) the colouristic potential of the modern piano in Bach, and he employed a very judicious use of pedal. The results were of course music making with a great deal of colour, a very “pianistic” sort of playing. He played the fugue with a keen sense of motion.

The French Suite No. 5 in G Major, BWV 816 is a work that is technically within the reach of many piano students. It does, however, take a great musician like Goode to bring out the true beauty and craftsmanship of the piece. After beautifully playing the Allemande, Goode achieved an incredible sense of lightness and buoyancy in the bubbly Courante. I appreciated his choice of tempo in the Sarabande, where every note was like a pearl within a precious necklace. Goode brought out a wonderful feeling of lilt in the famous Gavotte (another work often butchered by many young students), always emphasizing the horizontal line of the music. There was gentleness in Goode’s playing of the Loure, and a great feeling of bounce in the Gigue.

It is quite rare for pianists to include the Sinfonias in a recital programme, as Good did last evening. I personally think that the fifteen Sinfonias are, in terms of compositional craftsmanship and musicality, just as staggering as the Well-Tempered Clavier. That the pieces were played with incredible pianism is probably something that can be assumed, but Goode also successfully brought out the distinct and contrasting characteristic of each individual work. I found particularly memorable the beauty of his sound in the E-flat major and G minor Sinfonias. The final Sinfonia in B minor was given a performance light and fleet fingered performance that took our breath away.

After the interval, the artist began his performance with the Prelude and Fugue in F Major, BWV 880, where he especially brought out the humour of the fugue with its quirky subject.

Bach’s Partita No. 2 in C minor, BWV 826 is an unusual work, since it does not end with a Gigue, but a boisterous Capriccio. I did miss the sense of space and feeling of high drama in the opening Grave adagio, with its dotted rhythmic figures, as well as a sense of surprise and wonder at the beginning of the Andante section (m. 8). I did think that the transition to the ¾ section was beautifully done. From where I sat, there was some blurring of lines in the Courante, but that could have been a result of the acoustic of the hall rather than a case of over-pedaling. In the deceptively simple Sarabande, Goode beautifully sustained the long melodic lines, as well as the feeling of the walking rhythm. I thought that he had a real sense of the pulse of the music in the Rondeau, something that is so difficult to achieve. The closing Capriccio was played with great energy, and a sense of propulsion, of forward motion. 

I don’t know if I admired Goode’s playing more, or that he managed to play the Italian Concerto, BWV 971 without the aid of the page-turner, an amazing feat in itself! The opening movement had great energy. There could perhaps be greater contrast between the ripieno and the concertino. In the Andante, Goode had a real feeling for the long line of the right hand, and a sense of buoyancy in the left hand. The Presto closing movement was breathtaking, with the most incredible feeling of lightness and energy in the left hand I have heard in a long time.

It was a truly enjoyable evening of great music played by a great pianist. When I hear wonderful Bach playing by pianists like Goode or Andras Schiff, I find it even more difficult to understand the great fame achieved by that other Canadian pianist for her Bach playing, which seems to me very ordinary, even pedestrian. That said, it may seem excessively harsh (and picky) to say that last night’s concert was merely very beautiful, but what I felt was that the artist did not touch on the spiritual dimension of Bach’s music, a sense of reaching into the hereafter. At risk of being accused of asking for the impossible, I do believe that Bach’s music possesses these qualities. I thought Schiff was more successful in reaching beyond the notes when he performed Book One of the Well-Tempered Clavier here a few years back. I would love to hear Goode play the same programme many times to really get a sense of what he is trying to achieve with these works.

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