Music / The Berkshire Review in Boston

Richard Goode Plays Beethoven’s Last Three Sonatas and Bagatelles, Op. 119 at Jordan Hall, Boston

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Richard Goode
Richard Goode

Richard Goode, piano
Beethoven Sonatas, Op. 109, 110, 111 and Bagatelles, Op. 119
Jordan Hall, Boston, November 1st, 2014

This was a great recital—almost. Richard Goode played the last three Beethoven piano Sonatas and a set of late Bagatelles, and was quite convincing, even revelatory, with all the material except the final Sonata, the forbidding Opus 111. This last came off well, it felt meant—and all those difficult notes were well articulated—but the full emotional daring of the piece was not quite there.

Beethoven thought of these three Sonatas as a group—this is how he negotiated about them with his publisher—but he gave them separate opus numbers, unlike his first and self-defining set of Sonatas, Opus 2, numbers 1-3. These late Sonatas are each a magisterial and major work, each deserving its own opus number. But they have much in common, and they make an interesting progress. Goode, taking them in the order written, made a good case for seeing them as a group.

The E-Major Sonata, Opus 109, begins with a many-noted, arpeggiated, harp-like theme centered on two notes rising, then falling, rising, falling, suggesting fatedness in a tender, resigned mood. A second theme, adagio espressivo, puts the movement into slow motion with singing, longing gestures, slow notes plus quick, blurry arpeggios. Then the bulk of the movement becomes a development of the first theme, repeated and re-starting in various forms. The opening returns bold and loud, then the slow part once again, leading to a wandering and unpredictable coda. Goode conveyed the free-form fantasy and improvisatory quality of all this, with clear and rippling finger-work, a sonorous tone, and a fine sense of the larger arcs and rhythms and where the emphases should fall. He distended the beat at times, but this always sounded natural and right. Such was the way he played throughout the evening.

Goode rendered the middle-movement minor-key Prestissimo of 109 rightly nervous and tense, as it hits hard on first beats of measures, then odd beats, then finally all beats—an episode of Beethovenian fury. The Sonata’s finale is an extended Theme and Variations, as is the finale of Opus 111 (and that of the Ninth Symphony and Eroica Symphony—this form is everywhere in Beethoven, perhaps his most characteristic mode). Here the theme, cantabile ed espressivo, “singing and expressive,” made of falling intervals with rich embellishments and turns up to higher notes, touches the heart and carries one away into a world of song. Goode played this beautifully, and gave himself over fully to the variety of the variations—slow and fast dancing, soulful dwelling on the plangent falling intervals, bold ventures into the upper reaches of the keyboard—all falling back eventually into the singing opening theme.

The A-Flat-Major Sonata, Opus 110, proved the high point of the recital, and the audience responded with cheers and its strongest ovation for any piece. Opus 110 has the free, meditative fantasy quality of Opus 109 (or 101), which suits Goode very well. And he made clear that 110 goes beyond 109, pushing diverse parts to further extremes. Goode made us feel and live through the many directions this piece takes: an unassuming moderato opening theme with simple harmony and even notes in both hands; then super-fast arpeggios; a desperate loud articulation of a version of the main theme very high on the keyboard; a very brief development section that keeps trying, and failing, to get started; eventually a short Scherzo that pounds every note; and an extended finale that begins with a minor-mode, crying-out, operatic adagio, moves into a quicker-paced fugue in the major on a version of the piece’s initial theme, as if trying to solve a held-over musical—and emotional—problem in a new way, then a return to the slow music, then a fast quasi-fugue on the previous fugue subject turned upside down, ending in a blaze of bright arpeggios seeming like forced hope—which one believes in. Beethoven’s free-fantasy quality is, of course, rooted in deep compositional rigor—forming everything out of a piece’s few basic musical motifs, making key changes, however bold, according to the traditional logic of Bach and Mozart. The effect for the listener is of a deep, perhaps mysterious, organic quality to all Beethoven’s wide-ranging gestures. With Opus 110 Goode trod the line marvelously well between letting go with all the wide-ranging gestures, and drawing everything back toward its core. He was plain, fantastic, desperate, forceful, singing and operatic, or manic, as the piece called for—he seemed to be composing it as he played it—yet he gave the sense of knowing where it would all go, what it added up to, where it came from. The piece seemed both unpredictable and inevitable, like a tree or a river.

After intermission, one wanted to go right on with the series of Sonatas, to take the next step. But playing six Bagatelles from Opus 119 in fact proved a good idea, clearing the air, even injecting a note of humor—the audience laughed at one point. These pieces are bold and lovely experiments offered just as sketches, undeveloped, sometimes abruptly cut off. One felt properly refreshed before turning to the large and demanding final Sonata.

Opus 111 pushes borders even further than Opus 110. The opening grand and shocking Maestoso then compulsive Allegro in C-minor—Beethoven’s key of serious vehemence and astonishment throughout his career—takes the listener to the edge of insanity with its leaps and dissonances, emphatic scales and dogged repetitions, extreme high and low notes played together, its restlessness creating almost a horror of what might happen next. Goode was engaged here and did some forceful playing, but he did not go all the way with the violence and demonic quality of this music. He seemed a little held back.

The second and final movement makes an abrupt change to a simple C-major slow hymn-like theme, sobering and transporting like much music in Beethoven’s late String Quartets—beside it the lovely theme of the Opus 109 finale seems over-sweet, sugary. The Opus 111 variations connect to the two previous Sonatas in their free and lyrical feel, but this movement dares more than they, goes into stranger territory, and one has to comprehend that the piece’s wild and threatening first movement is a prelude to this, that it is the devil inside the self of the finale which the finale must acknowledge and take back in. The performance must never forget that first movement. Beethoven goes down many strange paths here—obsessive dotted rhythms, triplets, and trills, obsessive repetition of fragments derived from the main theme, painfully thin passages, shockingly loud passages, very fast and very slow episodes. All is absorbed by the simple and sublime overriding main theme, as is the opening movement—but one has to hear the parts in their full character, hear the dissolution and alienation, to echo Thomas Mann’s language in writing about the piece (in Doctor Faustus).

Goode played Opus 111 as a meditative piece a little too much in one mood, a little too much like the first two sonatas in the group. It was a view, and it conveyed something—but was a bit tame. Goode played the whole program with a score before him, which for the most part made no difference, so seasoned and considered and assured was everything he did, phrase by phrase and overall. But Opus 111 had a little the feel of a read-through, where the pianist might do more with the work later. Still, the evening’s 109 and Bagatelles were very satisfying, and 110 a revelation.

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