Were Thomas Eakins alive and wanting to do a modern-day version of his 1875 painting
The Gross Clinic
, he'd have found ready models and far better lighting Monday at the Perelman Theater, where master pianist Richard Goode played a typically smart recital with a gallery of listeners, suggesting updated casually dressed medical students, peering down on him from the Conductor's Circle as if learning the secrets of esoteric surgery.
There were more secrets than usual. Goode long ago became a model of artistic dedication whose antiglamorous package inspires other people to think they can, with proper work and training, do the same. And musical operations are unusually delicate when bringing to life Debussy's Preludes Book II - the primary event of Goode's Monday recital, presented by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society.
In contrast to Book I, the less-heard Book II takes imaginative leaps further afield from the composer's individual subtitles ("Mists," "Dead Leaves," "Moors" etc.) and into the abstract in a manner more akin to his Martyrdom of St. Sebastian than La Mer. And when Debussy is graphic in these preludes, he's so literal as to almost mock the listener, quoting "God Save the Queen" and bits of popular ephemera.
Goode was in top form: Literal stuff took care of itself, freeing him to go deep into distant, exotic realms with the distilled picturesqueness of French Symbolist poetry while also deflecting any definite meaning. It was musical opium - strange and pleasant in ways that keep you from asking questions. On a more analytical level, you were unusually aware of the music's simultaneous events, contrasting blocks of sound intermingling with like-minded motion (sometimes).
Goode's fingers were only partly responsible for this; he programmed Debussy with two composers for whom counterpoint was religion - and with an eye for numerological symbolism.
The first half was framed with Bach's seven-movement Partita in G major and Brahms' only collection of seven miniatures, Op. 116. Close proximity to Bach highlighted the counterpoint that gives texture and rigor to Brahms' three-to-four-minute emotional crucibles, which, paradoxically, seemed more excitable amid cool analysis. In between was Mozart's Rondo in A minor (K. 511, the one that sounds like a music box in need of antidepressants), which is approximately cast in the seven-part form of ABACADA.
Bach had numerological tendencies; why shouldn't Goode? And you didn't need to contemplate cabalistic significance of the number 7 to enjoy the concert. As Goode began the Debussy preludes, though, you feared he might take the idea too far: The first three preludes were run together without pause, suggesting these 12 miniatures would arrive in seven arbitrary clumps. They didn't. What followed, though, was a Chopin nocturne played as an ill-advised encore. Though some listeners had greeted Debussy by talking, removing hearing aids, and rattling bags Philadelphia style, most seemed to love it and might have been happier stranded in the music's foreign wonderland to find their own way back to familiarity.