Better late than never

Stage fright delayed the pianist Richard Goode's solo career for decades
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Those who pack the Barbican on Friday will be there not only for the programme - perennial favourites by Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann - but also for the presence of the enigmatic New Yorker who will deliver it. Richard Goode's aura derives from his history, which has left its stamp on his gnarled face and powerful physique.

Yet that history is a kind of void: a refusal to start his solo career until he was almost 50. He was born in the Bronx, New York. His talent was spotted early, and his musical education followed the usual élite path. For "refusal", read stage fright, and seeking safety in numbers as a chamber musician.

"I had no stage fright when I was eight," he says. "I thought people who suffered from it were crazy. It struck when I was 10 and developed into something huge. It's a state of extreme discomfort, and you don't know where it's coming from."

Psychoanalysis didn't help, and it only lifted later as he played more and grew a thicker skin. "But as Rudolf Serkin [his tutor] used to say, 'It's no big trick to play the piano when you're not nervous.'" Fear, he insists, is a part of the game.

For many years he was that cliché, a "musician's musician", but when, at 47, he made his Carnegie Hall début, it was followed by a New Yorker profile - Who is this man? Where has he been? - of a length exceptional even for that organ. From then on - apart from a spell when he was incapacitated with tendonitis - he has been in the limelight, feted for the intensely pondered poetry of his playing.

His chamber-music activities are unconventional, yet he insists that his musical heart is in the 18th and 19th centuries. "A lot of contemporary music depends on a language that must be learned. You have to serve an apprenticeship before you can enter into it, and frankly I can't get my ears round atonal music. With Schoenberg, I've never been able to feel why one note follows another. I can't breathe the atmosphere, I feel homeless there."

He has, he adds, "a limited capacity for unrelieved dissonance", and goes off the record to name one or two famous contemporary composers whose work he regards as pointlessly busy. "A lot of contemporary music is all foreground, without any discernible events in the middle-ground, which is where I want to live. Extreme activity is a way of masking a lack of real event."

Does he never tire of playing the same repertoire? "Like the cells of your body change totally every seven years, so I think my playing may change." He has always admired Beethoven's architecture, "but I now feel less close to him in his heroic mode". That's why the late Beethoven he's playing at the Barbican will consist of bagatelles rather than sonatas: with these tiny, intense pieces, Beethoven's genius goes into full-blown ludic mode.

As he tucks into his lunch, Goode himself turns ludic, punctuating his thoughts with quick, blinking smiles and sudden thunderclaps of laughter.

Richard Goode, Barbican, London EC2 (0845 120 7500), 14 May, 7.30pm