Ludwig von Beethoven wrote exactly five piano concertos. Tchaikovsky, three. Brahms, two. Grieg, one. Okay, Mozart, the outlier, wrote 23, but if you’re going to dedicate your life to touring as a classical pianist, part of your job is to keep these pieces fresh for yourself and for audiences.
I asked Richard Goode, one of the world’s greatest Beethoven interpreters, headed to Boston to perform a Beethoven concerto on February 12 with the Budapest Festival Orchestra as part of the Celebrity Series of Boston, how he does it.
Michael: What’s the secret of keeping Beethoven as exciting today as when you first performed his work?
Richard: Since 2005, I haven’t played many performances of these pieces, so it wasn’t difficult to see them freshly this time around—something like meeting old friends after a long interval.
I remember a comment by the pianist Mieczyslaw Horszowski, who said that progressing as a musician meant learning to read a score better. Returning to the 4th Concerto, I’ve been struck by the leisure and breadth of Beethoven’s conception of the first movement—it is marked ‘Allegro Moderato’, and a moderate allegro is rather rare with Beethoven. There is so much detail, and much of the piano writing is delicate filigree.
The seamlessness of the transitions in the first movement remind me of Mozart. It is something that I don’t think Beethoven achieved in the first movements of his earlier concerti. This makes the dramatic climax in the development where the music goes to the most distant key—C sharp minor—that much more powerful. I think that in this piece, Beethoven is very much in dialogue with Mozart—specifically with Mozart’s C major Concerto K. 503.
Michael: The most popular Beethoven concertos are the 3rd and the 5th, the Emperor Concerto. What brings you back time and again to the 2nd and 4th?
Richard: There are beautiful dialogues between piano and orchestra in both Beethoven 2 and 4. In the second movement of the 4th, it is very possible that Beethoven (as the legend goes) really did have in mind Orpheus pleading with the guardians of Hades. But there is also the very touching coda in the Adagio of the 2nd, where the piano’s eloquent voice is answered by the hushed replies of the orchestra.
Michael: How were these pieces received when Beethoven first performed them?
Richard: One thing that might enlarge people’s understanding of Beethoven is to realize how bizarre his music sounded to many of his contemporaries. Of course he was revered as a master, but the sheer weirdness and wildness of his imaginative flights were a constant source of amazement. He was compared to the poet Jean Paul Richter, the master of far-fetched metaphor, beloved of Schumann.
Michael: The common perception of Beethoven is that his music is great but depressing. Do you buy that?
Richard: Karl Ulrich Schnabel, the son of the great pianist Artur Schnabel, liked to say, somewhat mischievously, that Beethoven’s music was ‘85% cheerful’. He felt that the pathos and tragic struggle too much dominated the public perception, with the enormous humor and classical balance getting short shrift. So symphonies 3, 5, and 9 fit the heroic and tragic image. Stravinsky said that he much preferred the even numbered ones. For Boulez, the Grosse Fugue was the summit.
Michael: Where are the Beethovens and Mozarts of today? It seems as though no one is capable of composing what we would call classical music or universally accepted music.
Richard: In their day, musical language was relatively codified—every listener understood the basic language. Those rules don’t exist now—there is no agreed-on language, but instead an enormous freedom to make your own rules and convince the listener. It is very exciting and hugely challenging. Perhaps today’s universal composers are not classical at all.
Richard Goode will perform Sunday, February 12 with the Budapest Festival Orchestra at Boston’s Symphony Hall under the direction of Iván Fischer.
For further information, go to http://www.CelebritySeries.org