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He surprised the audience, and the critic: Richard Goode.

PHOTO: Michael Wilson

A Smashing Opener

By B.A. Nilsson

Richard Goode

Union College Concert Series, Memorial Chapel, Oct. 11

Richard Goode gained as much acclaim and attention as a classical-music artist is likely to get with his recordings of the complete piano sonatas by Beethoven, a formidable journey that he traversed with uncommon brio.

We had a taste of that last week when he closed the first half of an impressive recital with Beethoven’s “Moonlight” sonata, that warhorse of warhorses. Sighs of audience recognition punctuated the beginning of the piece, with its measured right-hand triplets and plaintive left-hand drone, a reaction that probably turned to surprise (it did with me) as Goode established a brisk tempo and unusually relentless pulse.

Too fast? Not to my taste. There’s a “to be or not to be” quality to the opening of that sonata: It’s so famous that you’re tempted simply to get it over with. But I didn’t hear that in Goode’s approach, which pulsed with appropriate wistfulness, avoiding the too-easy route of shrouding the movement with melancholy.

This approach made more meaningful the little scherzo that follows, a lighthearted interlude that sets you up for a big, Beethoven surprise: the tumultuous finale, bursting forth with the fury of a tantrum and finishing so fortississimo that the Steinway’s strings seemed to be banging into one another.

And that was it for the warhorse part of the program. Four other composers were represented with more than a dozen other works, beginning with a wonderful survey of not-so-well-known pieces by Bach.

Should works written for harpsichord or organ be performed on the piano? I doubt that the debate ever will end, but ever since Glenn Gould famously claimed the Goldberg Variations for the modern keyboard, there’s been credible ammo on both sides. Goode opened a Bach set (and the recital itself) with the Prelude and Fugue in G minor, a lively start that right away established the pianist’s decidedly non-Romantic leanings—no Edwin Fischer he. And we got our first taste of Goode’s fleet finger work in the fugue, a movement characterized by a repeated note that tipped you off to each new voice.

Five sinfonias (three-part inventions) wove through major and minor keys as well as thoughtful and exuberant personalities, finishing with the enigmatic E-flat major sinfonia, a puzzle of a piece that reveals itself slowly.

Haydn’s Sonata in D major crackles with the composer’s celebrated wit. The opening allegro is merry flurry of turns and flourishes, which still didn’t prepared me for the un-adagio-like adagio that followed, with a cute but busy melody over pulsing left-hand chords. And then, wham! Right into a merry presto laced with surprises, not least of which was its abrupt, amusing finish.

That aforementioned Beethoven sonata finale drastically changed the mood of the concert, setting up the second half’s array of works by Debussy and Chopin. Three well-chosen Debussy preludes kicked off with the evocative Cathédral engloutie (Engulfed Cathedral), performed with a well-controlled dynamic sense that build it to an exciting climax. The wispy Ondine led to General Lavine—Eccentric, with its jazzy but very Debussy-an licks.

Chopin’s Impromptu in F-sharp Minor has a French feel to its melody, at least until the trademark Chopin filigree comes in, making it an effective transition piece. Goode made easy work of three mazurkas, the last of which, in C-sharp Minor, is an episodic-seeming piece the unity of which the pianist revealed.

And then it was on to the Nocturne in B Major—a tuneful (naturally) study with stormy moments of ornamental zeal, but which finished softly enough to make a quiet segue to the program closer, the Polonaise in F-sharp. This was Goode at his best, and I lost myself entirely in the splendor of the piece and thus have nothing to report. Except that this was a brilliant opening concert for the latest (36th annual!) Union College Concert Series.

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