Masterpieces of the past naturally define our present. But when seldom-heard greatness from distant centuries emerges from the side door, that present can be radically remade.
The much-beloved pianist Richard Goode proved it at his annual Philadelphia Chamber Music Society concert: British Renaissance composer William Byrd (1543-1623) needed only to make a relatively brief visit at the start of Wednesday’s Kimmel Center concert to cast a wholly different light on the Bach and Beethoven that followed — in one of the most stimulating and well-played programs I’ve heard from the 74-year-old pianist.
Byrd’s music is full of familiar elements: You’ve heard something similar in Hollywood costume epics, and Glenn Gould had a brief love affair with Byrd in some of his best recordings. Yet the music’s ingratiating flourishes seem to have been assembled in a parallel universe.
In the four pavanes and galliards Goode selected from My Ladye Nevells Booke (1591) — not often heard in mainstream programs, especially from an established-classics-only artist like this — solemn chords break out into extravagant flights, with both hands going rather separate ways, casually intersecting here and there with genteel rhythmic collisions and hiccups that give the impression of a genre being invented before your very ears. Refinement is there, but it’s not suave.
Goode programmed just enough Byrd for one’s ears to become steeped in that world, so when Bach’s English Suite in D minor came along, kinship with Byrd was apparent in the independent hands and congestion of ornaments. Even amid Bach’s steel-trap logic, you were reminded that great music is not perfect music. Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in A Op. 101— a longtime Goode specialty — similarly revealed more quirks than usual, even in a coloristically astute performance that, in an odd way, heralded the Debussy Preludes Book II on the second half.
Pianists must create their own individual sound world with Debussy, one quite different from Ravel, though few do so with as much diligence and artistry as Goode. He prefers homogeneous timbres with a strong backbone. He creates musical shapes rather than ideas. Rhythm avoids stasis at all costs, with a healthy forward momentum, but always with such soft attacks and releases that the music seems more conjured than articulated. In the fourth prelude, subtitled “The Fairies are Exquisite Dancers,” Goode was more about dancers than fairies, with firm but velvet-coated fingers.
His playing was clean but not tidy — allowing for Debussy’s quotation of “God Save the Queen” to be bombastically humorous later on in the cycle. Though some pianists would make each prelude a new mystery, Goode makes them a new adventure, as if to say, “You won’t believe what the composer will do next.” Even so, audience response was muted. Debussy does that to you. Though a giant on the concert landscape, he’s still from another world.