ENCOUNTERS by George Sturm
There are those whose passions for people, places,
and things are mercurial while others are more even-keeled in their involvements.
Pianist Richard Goode probably falls in the latter group, but the level and
intensity of his convictions and commitments are astonishing, and they give
him his unique profile as performer and person.
Although Goode's stature as a world-class soloist is of
comparatively recent vintage, he has been before the public for a long time,
principally as an accompanist and chamber music pianist. Throughout his professional
life, he has surrounded himself with musicians to whom he feels a particular
kinship, and this remarkable circle contains such personalities as singers
Bethany Beardslee and Benita Valente, clarinetist Richard Stoltzman, composer
George Perle, and many in the original core group of the Chamber Music Society
of Lincoln Center, of which he was a founding member and with whom he performed
regularly for twenty years. Among the people closest to the making of music,
Goode has inherited the descriptive tag often conferred on one of his teachers,
Mieczyslaw Horszowski: "a musician's musician."
Goode was born in the East Bronx in 1943. His parents, not
themselves musicians (although his father played violin and both loved the
art), soon detected Richard's unusual gift. When it came to choosing high
schools — the boy had gone to public schools and there was talk of his entering
the High School of Music and Art — it was decided to send him to a private
school that would permit him to intensify his piano studies. Among his early
teachers were Elvira Szigeti (aunt of the celebrated violinist Josef Szigeti),
Claude Frank and Nadia Reisenberg. His greatest musical mentor and guide
in those early days was Mrs. Rosalie Leventritt, widow of patron Edgar M.
Leventritt. (The Leventritt Foundation established the country's first and
most prestigious competition for young musicians, launching many notable
careers, including those of pianists John Browning, Van Cliburn, Eugene Istomin,
and Alexis Weissenberg, and of violinists Pinchas Zukerman and Itzhak Perlman.)
It was she who was to introduce him to the Mannes College of Music's extension
division, the Marlboro Festival, and the Curtis Institute (where he continued
his studies with Rudolf Serkin and Mieczyslaw Horszowski).
His "professional track" began early, at the
age of eight. "I never entertained any other idea. I think with performers
it's pretty much the rule to know early in childhood. Or if they don't know
then, they do have to get an idea of technical requirements before their
mid-teens. That's one of the problems, I think. You decide early and excuse
your psychological development later," he quipped.
Goode's wife, the violinist Marcia Weinfeld, comes in to
ask about a tour that is to begin on the following day and, as the logistics
are addressed, the eye wanders around the cozy living room of the modest
apartment on New York's midtown East Side. The central object in the room
is the piano. But of almost equal prominence are the books, the stacks of
music, the paintings. The ambience easily gives rise to a free chain of questions,
associations, and ideas.
Is there a marked difference, we asked, between the past,
when composers were also performers (Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, etc.), and
the present, when the need for specialization has created something of a
gulf between partners in the musical experience? "It's hard not to regret
the lack of connection. Unity in music is certainly the ideal. The kind of
performances that I love is the kind where you say that it sounds like he's
writing the piece. And, of course, if you do have the experience of writing
pieces, then you'll be more likely to come up with a performance that sounds
like you're writing. The connection is from inside. I think that maybe the
main danger of performances these days is that they aren't always generated
from within. And coming from the other side, a lot of 20th century music
may not be sufficiently direct, unless composers have a more immediate connection
to instruments. It has so much to do with the movement of music into the
margin of our lives rather than expressing something very central."
On the music of today: "First of all, I have to say
that there's so much going on that I really have no idea of it all. There
are so few pieces that I've gotten to know really well. But my impression
is that things were on a very discouraging path 15 years ago. There was an
academic stranglehold on music, a devotion to serialism that was totally
misguided, crazy in fact. I think the situation now is dizzying but essentially
much more healthy. The responsiveness of composers to all kinds of different
trends is a most encouraging development for me. We now have a choice of
so many kinds of music, and no one can say any longer that music has to go
this or that way."
How does he go about preparing a piece for public presentation,
be it for performance or recording? "If it's a recording, it has to
be preceded by public performance. But many of the pieces that I prepare,
I've had in my ear somehow, from having looked at them or having taught them.
Most of the time, I don't start from scratch. I'll look them over, rather
slowly, examining possibilities, turning them over, doing sort of an analysis
of them, trying to get the main lines clear, very important — working out the
fingering, choosing the edition — I take lessons from the Schnabel editions
that I still use in study because they have invaluable suggestions — and in
that way, pieces begin to take shape. I can't say that I have a plan of action,
things I always do. It's a gradual coming together."
What about the use of music at performances? "I probably
use music more than most. That may be partly because I play chamber music
so much, and that may have accustomed me to using it. I do think that playing
by heart is a wonderful additional freedom, but it's also a tyranny. For
myself — and I can't speak for other people-there are certain works in which
the advantages of playing by heart far outweigh the possible inhibition of
playing with music; and others where it works the other way. I would say
that in much 20th century music and some of the more complex works of Bach,
I prefer using music. My guess is that if some of the strictures on the use
of music were relaxed, a lot of pianists would play a far broader repertoire.
Myra Hess, Clifford Curzon in his later years, Richter all played with music
and their performances didn't suffer."
Did he think it important for pianists to know the literature
of other instruments? After a straightfaced "no, they need to know only
their own" and a big laugh: "Of course. One couldn't imagine playing
the Debussy Preludes without knowing what the Songs are like, and so it goes
for all other composers except for Chopin. The piano is the great instrument
of illusion and transformation. Sounding like a piano, it can sound like
everything else. The greatest thing is to make the piano sound like the ideal
instrument, the voice, or for that matter, poetically, all the other instruments
of the orchestra. Consequently a pianist needs to keep his ears open in these
very many ways. Dick Stoltzman and I recently played some Ives songs — they
are to American music what The Leaves of Grass is to American poetry — and
we both, on our respective instruments, imitate the voice. If you think seriously
about the piano as a vocal instrument, and how many ways there are for the
voice to make an interval alive — that, to me, is at the heart of playing the
What responsibilities did he think a piano teacher had to
his students? "If I have ever let my students down, it's that I haven't
always fully attended the business of being something of a policeman. It's
a role that never appealed to me, but in some ways I feel that it's really
necessary. My first teacher, Mrs. Szigeti, made no separation between music
and technique. There were technical things to be learned and excercises were
to be practiced in a musical way. She loved the materials of music very much,
and something of that rubbed off on me. Not only did I have a feeling of
joy and accomplishment when I practiced Hanon, I even liked it harmonically.
But I think that there are two kinds of piano teacher. The first — I think
in a way the more difficult — is the teacher who actually guides the musical
and instrumental education of a student from earlier stages, say from age
10 or 11. The second is more of a coach. People's playing is more or less
fully formed by the time they're in their twenties. One can learn a great
deal after that, but the foundation is set."
On the way music is perceived in society: "I took a
cab recently. The driver was a Russian who had recently come to this country.
We started talking about music, about Soviet artists, and I asked about Richter.
He said, yes, he was a wonderful artist but did I know Maria Yudina? He started
to speak about this woman — remember, he was not a musician — as if she incarnated
his ideals of life. I thought that he felt her speaking for him, that he
loved her the way one loves one's favorite composer or writer, that it was
something central. It was a feeling of centrality, that what the arts say
was fundamental to life and not merely an ornament or cultured accomplishment.
His prioritizing spoke for the perception of music's role in his life. I
remember speaking to the conductor Edmond de Stoutz about Clara Haskil. `She
did basic music,' he said, as if to say that for her music was not like a
luxury product, it was like bread. I loved that. People read because it's
necessary; they listen to music because it's necessary. When you're on stage
and see the people in the house, you know that they are there because it's
necessary for them to hear Beethoven sonatas. Not just that they want to
hear what you do to those pieces, they know a lot of other pianists who've
done those sonatas. No, those pieces are part of their lives. And
I think that's what performers really want because that puts them in the
right light. Then they become transmitters and not simply on show."
On competitions: "Do you mean if I think them a necessary
evil? I don't know. When I was a kid, there were only a handful of important
competitions and a sprinkling of others, but it still seemed possible to
get by without entering them. Now, not only are there so many, but it seems
that there are no students who feel that they can do without them. Mr. Horszowski
felt that the decline of general musical literacy among his students was
directly connected to the proliferation of competitions.
They thought they could polish a few things up to a high
gloss and do the rounds, rather than learning repertory in a broad way. I
don't know what the alternatives are."
About the early music movement: "I've learned a good
deal from some of the instruments. Some of the things that have seemed difficult
and frustrating [on a concert grand] fall away [with a reconstruction or
original instrument]. Others become difficult and frustrating. The modern
piano is a problem when you play some of the repertoire, and these
ancient instruments have made us more aware of absolute clarity of sound
and attack and a quality of linear outline. It's very difficult to achieve
that on a lot of modern pianos. On the other hand, I have often been struck
[in performances on ancient instruments] with a certain lack of cantabile,
of vocal quality. But frankly, I don't think that sound is all
that important. The music itself is much more important in most of the literature.
As the movement continues, one development will be that we will have very
interesting performers playing, who understand that the composer's message
must come through, and know what's going on rhythmically. It's not enough
to play the text as if it were self-sufficient, metronomically and without
rhythmic imagination. You have to use your imagination in many different
Goode has played and recorded a lot of George Perle's music.
In fact the Ballade was written for and dedicated to him. How did
that association come about? "Through Shirley [Rhoads, the pianist who
is Mrs. George Perle]. I'm an old friend of Shirley's and anyone who knows
her also knows George. I got the Ballade page by page, and it took
a while before I understood what George was driving at. It was about a month
of playing daily until I got the harmonies in my head. I think he wrote the
Ballade not only thinking about Chopin Ballades, his direct inspiration,
but also with my kind of playing in mind. It's clearly a piece that's congenial
to my musical personality. I've also performed and recorded his Concertino
which is much more Stravinskyan. Although calling a piece that's rhythmically
incisive Stravinskyan is like calling anything to do with sex Freudian. It's
a little too much to visit Stravinsky with anything that happens to be strictly
Did he think that the contemporary performer owes it to anyone
to play contemporary music? "Well, he owes it to himself to find out
what it sounds like. I think you'd have to be totally lacking in curiosity
not to want to know what's going on in your own time, or else very bitter.
That's part of being alive as an artist, knowing what's going on. But I do
not think that the contemporary performer owes it to anybody to play contemporary
music if that music does not fill his sails or ring his bells. In fact, he
owes it to people not to play their music if it doesn't do to him what old
music does. I do not think that a dutiful performance is worth anybody's
time. But getting to know new music does take time and involvement. Look,
if I hadn't devoted the month to learning George Perle's eight-minute piece,
it would never have soaked in. There has to be that initial pull."
The death of Horowitz registered in all the world's consciousness.
The degree of public awareness says much about both Horowitz and the world.
With the disappearance of great icons such as Horowitz, are there others
taking their place as larger-than-life musicians? "The environment is
changing. We no longer conceive of one individuality meaning so much. Some
areas have trees growing to an enormous height; others where they don't grow
so big, although there are quite a few good-size ones. Maybe there are even
more good-size ones than there were in the past, but the towering ones aren't
there anymore. When you think about, say Horowitz in particular, you can
never lose sight of his personality or his environment, his own inner law
which was very unusual among musicians. He was a phenomenon. I think that
it's much harder to be the eccentric now. Horowitz did everything in Russian, he did it in Horowitz. He did certain things absolutely
extraordinarily, and other things where you could vomit, but he did it all
his way, and it was always first-rate Horowitz. How difficult it is, how
almost impossible, to grow up now and be oneself to such an extent! In some
ways he was a very insular figure. Nowadays anyone with such an enormous
talent could not be like that. Perhaps isolation is really necessary to breed
such enormities. Public fanfare may have been created [to bring him into
the consciousness of a huge public], but what actually happened was something
entirely between him and the instrument. It was that magical act between
him and his fingers and the keyboard, his imagination, and that weird sound
world that only he knew how to unlock."
What can be done to guard against the ossification of the
repertory? Did Richard Goode feel this to be a danger? "I'm sure it
is, at least for some more than for others. Andras Schiff, for example, is
incredible. He plays everything. Other people — and I'm one of them — need quite
a long time, not only for learning but before they feel they have the right
to play a piece publicly. But then, when I want to move on, people ask if
I'd play the Beethoven sonata program again. [Goode has recorded the complete
Beethoven sonatas for Book-of-the-Month Club Records.] Now one doesn't do
that to become identified with Beethoven sonatas. I almost always have the
feeling that I could certainly play a piece better, or there's a certain
dissatisfaction that drives me on. But that's also a danger, because I realize
that, in the time I spend trying to achieve the best possible performance
of a certain Beethoven sonata, I could be learning 22 other pieces."
How does he — an artist first known as a chamber music pianist
and accompanist — strike a balance in concertizing, now that he can more or
less pick his engagements? "If I have the opportunity to play solo recitals
now, I take advantage of it because I've done less of that than the other
literature. For me the richest thing that a pianist can do is still the solo
repertoire. They say that these are days in which solo recitals are less
prized by performers and listeners than a lot of other things, and maybe
that's true. But for me just now, it's my first choice, although I'm also
accompanying [soprano] Dawn Upshaw this year."
The solo recital may be Richard Goode's choice at this juncture
of his career. But always in evidence is his passionate involvement with
other artists he admires, with chamber music, orchestral dates, and recording.
Because for Richard Goode, the unity and centrality about which he speaks
so vividly is music in all its guises. It is the totality of music that sparks