Music review: Richard Goode at Disney Concert Hall

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Richard Goode -- whose recital at Walt Disney Concert Hall Tuesday night was a splendid and noble affair -- is the singing pianist.

He may not be the only one. Nor is he without his own brand of funny business. One elusive ideal of pianism is the sleight-of-hand art of persuading the listener that a percussion instrument can produce connected pitches, that the player can somehow finesse the resonating sound after a hammer has hit its strings. The greatest masters of the keyboard tend to be the ones who have found individual ways to defy the laws of physics through various forms of psycho-acoustical tomfoolery.


Goode is such a master. He is also a type. A 66-year-old New Yorker from the Bronx, he appears on stage like a kindly uncle. His white hair is long, cut like an 18th century wig that Haydn might have donned. His formal tails were a bit baggy this evening. On stage, lost in the music, he had a slightly distracted air, bobbing and making facial expressions. He was also a singing pianist in that he occasionally hummed along. He’s no Glenn Gould eccentric or Lang Lang showboat, but absent-minded professor seems to fit.

That is not to say that Goode is out of fashion in this age smitten with pianistic brilliance. He is, instead, outside of fashion, in the timeless sense, and his musical reach is wide. He is, for instance, the house classical pianist of Nonesuch, that hippest of record labels. He is the favorite partner of the adventurous, probing soprano Dawn Upshaw, which also makes Goode a singer’s pianist.

On Tuesday, Goode made Bach, Haydn and Schumann sing (and Chopin too, in an encore of a late nocturne). To begin, he plucked two consecutive Bach preludes and fugues (in F-sharp minor and G) from the middle of the second book of “The Well Tempered Clavier,” seemingly at random. This is private music not intended for an audience of any more people than can fit on a piano bench, and Goode here was a too intimate pianist for a full-sized concert hall. Nevertheless, he did get across the byzantine profundity in the first pair and of sunny brightness of the second.

Programming Haydn and Schumann together for a concert at the beginning of 2010 proved an excellent choice, as we transition from the 200th anniversary of Haydn’s death last year to celebrating Schumann’s 200th birthday this year. Moreover, Goode pointed out in his program notes that the 55 Haydn sonatas are “perhaps the least-known treasures in the piano repertoire.”

Maybe the problem with the sonatas is that their labeling by Hoboken catalog number is too cumbersome. The ones Goode played were Hob. XVI:22 (in E), Hob. XVI:32 (in B minor) and Hob. XVI:50 (in C). The string quartets are known by the Opus numbers and the symphonies are numbered sequentially, from 1 to 104.

Unlike the sonatas, many quartets and symphonies also have helpful nicknames, and Goode made a useful attempt to rectify that with the B-Minor Sonata, calling it “The Bear” in his notes and then bringing out its lumbering bass line amusingly in his performance. He was a deft hand at Haydn’s sometimes humor, as in the goofy sudden changes of direction in the last movement of the C-Major Sonata. But again, Goode’s was a slightly under-powered approach for Disney, making him most effective in the slow movements where his wonderful lyricism carried the farthest.

Schumann’s youthful, half-hour “Kreisleriana” was rapt and engrossing. Goode’s official biography ends with a note about the pianist’s love of visiting bookstores wherever he performs (I hope he’s not too disappointed now in Los Angeles, where we’ve lost a few), and he brought a literary approach to these eight movements inspired by the fantastical tales of the 19th century writer, E.T.A. Hoffmann. Goode treated Schumann’s shifts between agitation and songful melody novelistically. The page turns and you learn something new about a character.

He raced to the end, but he didn’t leave the lyricism behind. Every phrase was sung like a song.

-- Mark Swed