The interior of Merton College is so replete with furnishings and monuments of interest that one's eye is wont to wander away from the matter in hand – here a solo piano recital by Richard Goode, once of The Bronx in New York and now at 74 still living in New York City. Two of the finest stone memorials in the transept in fact have musical associations: that recalling Thomas Bodley, he of the Bodleian Library, shows the diplomat and scholar surrounded by stacks of books and flanked by female figures, one of whom, clutching a violin, represents Music. Henry Savile’s monument, an even more sophisticated affair than Bodley’s, depicts among other figures that of Fame, standing above the main panel, blowing her trumpet in honour of the historian and warden of Merton.
Whether Mr Goode was aware of the architectural musical references just at hand is doubtful. No doubt he had his hands full – literally – with his two hour recital, a programme ranging in date from Mozart's Piano Sonata in A minor K.310 from 1778 to works by Debussy and Janácek, both from c.1910. I would not place this sonata among the composer's masterpieces. As in the case of, say, Alfred Hitchcock's films, Mozart was capable of turning out works of lesser inspiration; considerable variation in quality was inevitable given the pressures of time, money and travelling against which he so often laboured. To my mind the sonata has a slightly bleak feel to it. Nick Breckenfield's invaluable notes pointed out that barely 30 of Mozart's 600+ catalogue are wholly in a minor key, and this work contains surprisingly harsh dissonances in the 'Andante cantabile con espressione'. Here and elsewhere in the piece I thought Mr Goode's sound was at times plangent, even rather dry.
To my shame Mr Goode's selection of four excerpts from Book 1 of Janácek's On an Overgrown Path were new to me; they are rustic-inspired pieces alluding to a village wedding song, in which a bride observes wistfully that “the path to my mother’s home has become overgrown with clover". Janácek’s cycle conveys a series of memories in which his harmonies and floating melodies create an idealistic view of a bygone world; perfect in tone, you would think, for music played in the chapel of one of the oldest Oxford colleges. Mr Goode's touch was gentle, demonstrating willingness to delve into the inner life of the sound, to play from the heart, and immersing himself in Janácek’s folk elements.
Brahms' Six Klavierstucke Op. 118, a series of mostly 'Intermezzi', were written in the composer's late fifties and dedicated to Clara Schumann. Mr Goode played the set at last year's Edinburgh Festival. They are more introspective than virtuosic, and Mr Goode played the 2nd (A major) Intermezzo very tenderly, before upping the ante to great effect in the rollicking 'Ballade'. The succeeding Intermezzo was notable technically for the incessant crossing of hands required, with the pianist's hands almost touching each other. The last element, the 'Intermezzo in E flat', was the highlight, full of triplets and then becoming a march.
I always think an enigmatic quality is at the heart of Debussy's piano music, and so it is in Book Two of his Preludes. Mr Goode perfectly caught the wildly differing qualities of his six selections, from the ringing Iberian bass of ‘La Puerta del Vino’ to the flickering fairies of 'Les Fées Sont d’Exquises Danseuses’. There was a spalsh of humour in ‘Genéral Levine’, evoking a Pickwickian street performer, and then in the concluding 'Ondine' the pianist's fingers rippled voluptuously in scales and arpeggios, evoking the natural habitat of the water nymph.
We ended with a late Beethoven sonata, No. 31, Opus 10, an extraordinarily optimistic piece given the illness and deafness crowding in upon the composer by that stage of his life. The 1st movement is especially sunny and Mr Goode almost radiated bonhomie. By now he held the audience in the palm of his hand and as he moved on through the many changes of tempo, 'allegro molto' to 'l'istesso tempo' he drew us with him. The final applause was deafening, calling the soloist back again and again, and he obliged with a gorgeous Bach 'Partita'.