CLASSICAL MUSIC Marc-Andre Hamelin QEH, London Richard Goode Wigmore Hall, London

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The Independent Culture
Sometimes London audiences get better piano recitals than they deserve. At Marc-Andre Hamelin's programme on Friday, only the front half of the Queen Elizabeth Hall was filled. Perhaps the prospect of Charles Ives's "Concord" Sonata and Reger's Variations and Fugue on a theme of Bach was too much for many people. Hamelin almost made light of it. Performing from memory, he played both with a restraint and delicacy, a quiet sense of concentration, that compelled attention and rendered these very different but equally dense works as digestible as they could be.

Ives's protean celebration of the New England Transcendentalists, Emerson, Hawthorne, the Alcotts and Thoreau, is hardly a tidy affair, and only Ives can have known what many of his obscure combinations of notes meant at the time he chose them, but Hamelin seemed not to have a single moment of doubt about their rightness, and Ives might even have found the beauty and grace of the playing incidental to the main point. Sweat dripped copiously from Hamelin's brow, but just from listening you would never have known it. His clarity and poise throughout, the ease with which he tossed out the cheeky jokes in "Hawthorne", the scherzo of the Sonata, these may have removed some of the Sonata's shock value, yet made it delightful.

Not that Hamelin's playing was underpowered, either here or in Reger's massive Variations, a favourite of the late Rudolf Serkin but otherwise rarely performed. Based on an extract from one of the cantatas, some of the variations preserve the outlines of the theme complete, while others go overboard on one of its aspects. The energetic, incredibly complex variations are more impressive than the rambling slow ones, where Reger cannot resist following harmonic false trails. But for all the elaboration, Hamelin conveyed a feeling of deep serenity, and even in the grandest moments, a religious sense, without any sense of strain.

Between Ives and Reger, he played Busoni's typically sumptuous arrangement of Bach's organ Prelude and Fugue in D (BWV 532 for those to whom catalogue numbers makes sense, or the fugue that goes diddle-diddle-etc-do to the rest of us). A gorgeously easy, disciplined performance, almost clarifying the clouds of reinforced counterpoint and double octaves that Busoni ends up with.

As encores, we got a Prelude and Fugue that Hamelin himself composed in 1986 - a sort of intellectual frolic not a million miles from Reger but with ajazzy tang to some of the harmonies - and then, very far away indeed, Faure's Third Barcarolle, played lovingly, without affectation, and lightly melting.

Richard Goode is almost at the other end of the spectrum from Hamelin. Now pretty well universally recognised as a great interpreter of Beethoven, in pianistic terms he's something of a rough diamond. His recital at the Wigmore Hall on Saturday was sold out and people were standing at the back. He chose Bach's Partita No 4 in D to begin, playing it in a relaxed, rather conventionally pianistic way, left hand often slightly before the right, without much intensity, little pointing or colour in his touch, and decidedly cautious with ornaments. He was inclined to rush in the Courante and the Gigue was fast rather than buoyant.

This wasn't, surely, the Richard Goode we had come to hear. Nor did five Mazurkas by Chopin bring out his best. He lacked the right crystalline touch, nor did he find quite the precise rhythmic style - the pieces seemed a bit stodgy and dull (which they certainly are not), and the Polonaise- Fantaisie, played without an intervening pause, was merely competently handled.

But with Schubert's posthumous B flat Sonata Goode was in his element. It would be impossible to analyse but, in the first movement, the inequality he brought to the beat and soft, constantly varied tone quality, achieved just the right mood of consolation. The pacing was confidently spacious, quite effortless. In the second movement, the strong sustained quality within muted dynamics was deeply easeful, and the deliberately mannered bending of rhythms in the middle section perfectly convincing. The scherzo was quite simply played, without any cuteness, and all the better for it. Perhaps Goode relished the finale less, and its stormy passages were a bit blustery. But after so much that was moving, he had to be forgiven for suddenly losing his concentration in the coda. He should have left it at that. We didn't need a rather plain, heave-ho trawl through Chopin's Barcarolle as an encore.