Like the gray wolf and the American bison, Bach on the piano has come back from the edge of extinction in recent years. The browbeating of well-intended musical purists very nearly scare pianists away from Bach a few decades ago, back when I was young; fortunately, pianists have, since the closing decades of the 20th century, reclaimed Bach as part of their heritage in the concert hall as well as the practice room. Thursday night at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, in a concert presented by The Cliburn, pianist Richard Goode demonstrated convincingly that the music J.S. Bach created for the harpsichord belongs quite effectively on the piano as well.
Goode’s case for Bach on the piano became evident in the opening notes of the concert, as mystery and beauty emerged from every bar of the Prelude in F-sharp minor from Book II of The Well-Tempered Clavier. Besides the sheer beauty and intricacy he displayed, Goode demonstrated an uncanny ability to make the piano sing, not with just one voice, but, in Bach’s layered counterpoint, with several distinctive voices, each with its own special quality.
Goode, who played from the score throughout the entire recital, devoted the first section of the program to a set of four Preludes and Fugues (F-sharp minor, G, A minor, and B) Book II of The Well-Tempered Clavier, each of which presented a unique and powerful aspect of Goode’s approach to Bach. In the F-sharp minor Fugue, for instance, he attacked with a gentle almost-but-not-quite staccato articulation that floated into the upward-and-downward tug-of-war that dominates the movement. The most emotionally formidable moment arrived in the Fugue in A minor, built around an angular, mournful theme (which also appears in Handel’s Messiah and Mozart’s Requiem); this was in turn countered with the rippling energy of the B-major Prelude and Fugue that closed the set.
In Bach’s F-minor Partita, in which a majestic opening Toccata introduces a set of dance movements, Goode leaned a little more on the pedal for a more resonant pianistic quality; even here, however, the listener could sense that Goode’s outlook, while not “authentic” in the strictest sense of the word—since the piano hadn’t been invented in Bach’s day—communicated an authentic portrayal of Bach’s intent and genius.
Goode’s reputation has rested largely on his interpretations Mozart and Beethoven, so his devotion of an entire half of this recital to Chopin came as a bit of surprise. His case for Chopin proved every bit as convincing as his journey into Bach, however. Two very familiar one-movement works—the Ballade in A-flat and the Polonaise-Fantaisie in A-flat—provided the anchor for the Chopin segment, but it was in shorter Mazurkas and Nocturnes (four of each) that Goode made his greatest impression as a Chopin interpreter. Goode uses the pedal in Chopin in a variety of intriguing, always effective ways, from evoking a dense, almost fog-like atmosphere in the almost morbid C-sharp minor Nocturne, to underlining an unexpected dissonance in a Mazurka in B-flat minor. For this listener, indeed, the four Mazurkas provided the high point of the second half, from the flirtatious interplay of Mazurkas in C and A-flat, suggestive of folk-life and village romance, to the narrative fire-side passion of a pair in F minor and B-flat minor.
Goode’s performance overall had a powerful, almost iconic quality, which can almost lead us to forgive his constant habit of humming along. However, even a pianist of Goode’s power and reputation should be aware that this compulsion interferes directly and negatively in communicating the music—much more so than casual, normal audience noise, and almost as much as a cellphone eruption.