Recording of April 2005: Mozart: Piano Music

Mozart: Piano Music
Sonata in a, K.310; March in C, K.408; Courante in E-flat, K.399; Gigue in G, K.574; Rondo in a, K.511; Sonata in F, K.533/494 Richard Goode, piano Nonesuch 79831-2 (CD). 2005. Max Wilcox, prod., eng. DDD. TT: 59:32
Performance *****
Sonics *****

Richard Goode is, by any and all standards, a remarkable pianist. His recording of the complete sonatas of Beethoven, released in 1993, became an instant classic and was nominated for a Grammy. His CDs of Schubert and Chopin are as handsome as they are insightful, and he has recorded, for Nonesuch, five discs of Mozart piano concertos that are ear- and mind-opening in their integrity, beauty, and clarity. He has a way of getting out of the way of the music—of never imposing his own personality on it—without ever being bland. If you follow with the score, you'll see that Goode is absolutely scrupulous in observing the composer's markings of dynamics, ornaments, and rests, but there's something personal about his overall approach to any piece that sets it apart without making it seem either quirky or overripe; by understating, he brings out each work's emotional content. His credentials are impeccable; he's studied with Elvira Szigeti, Claude Frank, Nadia Reisenberg, and Rudolf Serkin, and since 2000 has worked with Mitsuko Uchida as co–Artistic Director of the Marlboro Music School and Festival.

This is Goode's first CD devoted to Mozart's music for solo piano, and it's an unusual collection. We're given two of the composer's most troubled works, each a rare excursion into the minor mode; a grand F-major sonata with two movements written in 1788, combined with a finale composed two years before (hence the double Köchel number); and three infrequently played miniatures—a March, a Courante, and a Gigue—the longest lasting less than three minutes.

As usual with Mozart, each work sounds, at its outset, more easygoing and simple than it actually is. The exception is the three-minute March, K.408. Probably composed for his wife in its original orchestrated form, then reduced for piano by Mozart himself, it is brief and tuneful, and Goode plays it almost as a breather, after the Sonata in A minor, K.310, which opens the program. The A-minor sonata is a troubling, almost bitter, highly emotional work that looks toward Schubert and Beethoven. The first movement, Allegro maestoso, played without its repeats, is rhythmically nervous and unsettled; Goode makes much of the recurring low chords played against the falsely jolly-jaunty right hand. Although Mozart seems at first relaxed in the Andante cantabile con espressione, the movement takes an unexpectedly dark, edgy turn that Goode underlines. The sonata's finale, Presto, defines "anxious." In fact, neither outer movement ever stops: each has a breathless quality caught ideally by Goode without ever seeming rushed or too weighty; he plays them briskly, with stunning accuracy, and just the right brittleness.

After the easy-going March, a two-minute Courante (K.399, part of a suite composed in 1782) continues to keep any trouble away, Goode's right hand hardly touching the keys until the final seconds, when he underpins the dance with a bit more volume and power and ends the work gently but surely. A little 90-second gigue, K.574, was composed in 1789 for a Leipzig organist as a tribute to J.S. Bach but seems very modern in both its dissonant refusal to settle down and its melodic jumpiness. It's over in a flash, but Goode makes every odd little note count.

The ravishing Rondo, K.511, is one of Mozart's most gorgeous—and sad—works, a 10-minute meditation. A sweet little turn of a tune is immediately followed by chromatic rises; throughout the piece, this constant introduction of chromaticism makes the Rondo's apparent loveliness something deeper and distressingly poignant. Goode expresses the melancholy with pure sound, simplicity of meaning and implementation, and absolutely crystal clarity. This is a work of great introspection treated privately and elegantly.

The concluding sonata, K.533/494 in F major, is, as mentioned above, a mélange of works, although the last movement, the one composed earlier, was revised so that it would seem part of the whole. The first movement, Allegro, is a contrapuntal delight, another of Mozart's see-through pieces in which each part is unambiguous enough to catch the ear and soon becomes part of a larger fabric, Goode giving each voice the right weight. The longish Andante seems like an improvisation with a somewhat elusive form, held together by odd dissonant suspensions and a sense of both relaxation and utter sincerity. The concluding Rondo (Allegretto) begins with great candidness and lightness, even daintiness, and retains this mood—but a minute or so before the end, Mozart suddenly discovers the piano's lower, darker notes, and ends the piece there, peacefully and unexpectedly. Goode plays this, and the whole recital, with such natural phrasing, nuance, spotless fingerwork, and songlike legato—not to mention modesty—that one can't imagine it played any other way. He neither trivializes nor gives the music too much heft. Aided by sound that is intimate, honest, and clean, this is a release to play over and over, and to revel in.—Robert Levine