Richard Goode, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Concert pianists are almost by definition eccentrics, but Richard Goode's eccentricity is to be found in his life-story. Much of that is a void, in that this cautious, bookish piano tuner's son from the Bronx refused to start the solo career he was born for until nearly 50. Crippled with stage fright, he spent his youth winning prestigious solo prizes, but also seeking safety in numbers as a chamber musician. When he finally screwed up his courage for a Carnegie Hall debut at 47, he caused a sensation: the massive New Yorker profile that followed – who was this man, and where had he been all these years? – put him where he's been ever since, among the unquestioned deities of his profession.

But he's kept faith with his chamber-musician friends, developing a fruitful partnership with the soprano Dawn Upshaw and co-directing the Marlboro Music School with Mitsuko Uchida. Meanwhile, he's released a stream of recordings all bearing his definitive stamp: his limpid Bach and Mozart offer dependable pleasures, while his Beethoven sonata cycle is one of the most illuminating ever recorded.

And though he'd flagged up his South Bank recital as a homage to Chopin, he enlisted the music of Bach and Mozart – composers Chopin revered – to lend force to that homage, together with two of the études Debussy dedicated to him. Thus, Bach's first prelude and fugue from Book Two of The Well-tempered Clavier became his suitably expansive opener, followed by Bach's third French Suite, delivered with wonderfully measured grace. Then Chopin was represented by four mazurkas and an impromptu, followed by Mozart's exquisite Rondo in A minor, and the first half closed with Chopin's tempestuous fourth scherzo. The positioning of the Mozart was cunning, its theme seemingly echoing Chopin's ghostly ballroom effects.

But as the second half unfolded – Debussy, followed by two Chopin nocturnes, plus his most dramatic polonaise – one realised that, despite Goode's fastidiously tasteful pianism, a key ingredient was missing. His Chopin was earthbound rather than ethereal, and his Debussy lacked the requisite brilliant transparency. It all boiled down to the touch of finger on key, and Goode's touch, though expressive, is essentially Germanic: perfect for Bach and Mozart (and above all Beethoven), but unsuited to reflecting the magic of Poland or Paris. This thoroughbred horse simply chose the wrong course.