MUSIC / Do not adjust the volume: Adrian Jack on Richard Goode and Alfred Brendel in rival Beethoven piano cycles, plus Ronald Smith

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The Independent Culture
Richard Goode looks like a bundle of turbulence, yet the energy he spends at the piano is effective. At the Queen Elizabeth Hall last Wednesday he opened the second recital in his current cycle of Beethoven's sonatas with the big Sonata in E flat, Op 7, and almost burst apart with the joyous elan of the first movement. It's a hell of a thing to launch a programme, with its treacherous repeated notes, jumps and surprises: Goode was inclined to overbalance its contrasts, at least to a listener in the front stalls, where the sound is much less focused than in the cheaper seats, but his courage only failed him in the final radiant transformation, at which, perversely, he reduced the volume.

Goode's soft playing often had a velvety bloom, and he searched the recesses of the slow movement as seriously as anyone could without grinding to a halt. Yet while he is massively secure, his articulation isn't so smooth that other pianists would envy him, and in the Tempest sonata, Op 31 No 2, his fingers stirred up atmospheric vapours rather than brilliantly cut patterns.

For all that, in Les Adieux he seemed short on simple eloquence and poignancy, and less than elated in its final movement. Significantly, in Op 90, the gruff and broken dialogue of the first movement was a good deal more absorbing than the flowing legato of its sequel, for Goode is stronger on sense than on sensuous appeal, and while I admired his comprehensive intelligence, it didn't move me.

On Tuesday Alfred Brendel played more Beethoven at the Royal Festival Hall as part of his cycle, which extends well into 1995. The programme included the relatively simple pair, Op 14, the not-very-well- known Op 22, the popular Pathetique and Les Adieux. Despite the last two, it was rather low-profile fare for such a large audience and Brendel seemed to compensate by playing much of it unusually loudly.

The slow movement of the Pathetique might actually have been more effective if he had invited us to listen closely rather than assumed that we were all hard of hearing, and there was a touch of playing to the gallery in the way he finished off Op 14 No 2 by hunching himself up over the last tiny sounds before turning immediately round as if to say 'Now clap' - admittedly, some of the audience had tried after the middle movement.

Nobody could accuse Ronald Smith of being ungenerous, and in his recital at St John's Smith Square last Thursday he included all 12 of Chopin's Op 25 Studies, Liszt's Sonata in B minor, Beethoven's 32 Variations in C minor and a group of short pieces by Alkan, a contemporary of Chopin and Liszt and a composer with a streak of perversity quite beyond his time. Alkan's Octave Study sounded far harder than Chopin's because it combined fast octaves in one hand with jumps in the other.

With a programme as demanding as this - in terms not just of technique but also of emotional energy - it wasn't surprising if Smith saved himself to some extent, opting for fairly impersonal expressive effects on a basis of practical detachment (as if to say 'I can't afford to get involved'). The lighter, more lyrical Chopin studies were elegant and delicate but the heroic final three, including the one for octaves and the Winter Wind, were underpowered, while, in Liszt's Sonata, he showed no interest in mysterious atmosphere and his right hand was accurate but unsubtle in filigree. Yet although Smith ignored many opportunities for nuance, he shaped the main features with complete authority. He's also an engaging speaker, and gave brief introductions to Alkan's pieces which were amusing as well as perceptive.

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