MUSIC / Notes that speak louder than words: Mozart may be Top Composer, but there's still that unquenchable voice. The pianist Richard Goode talks Beethoven with Robert Cowan

Can music have a moral force? Could it be that the feelings of nobility, elation and conflict inherent in Beethoven's work can actually convey a non-musical message? The pianist Richard Goode thinks that they might. A seasoned Beethovenian given to extensive contemplation about the composer, his world, his work and the possible effects that his greatest music might have on us, Goode has made a lifelong study of the 32 piano sonatas. His pedigree as a Beethovenian reflects a wealth of accumulated experience, not least being his studies with the Beethoven specialists Claude Frank and Rudolf Serkin, and his systematic presentation of both the sonatas and the concertos in concert.

Never content merely to tackle the notes, Goode is constantly at pains to trace thematic connections between individual works, thinking through and rethinking passages that many other players take for granted. Does this mean that his performances alter with the passage of time? 'I don't often think how things change,' he says. 'I sort of let them change - sometimes I let them surprise me]' There's a chance in London to hear how this works out, as Elektra- Nonesuch has recently released his recording of the complete cycle, and Thursday sees the start of his live Beethoven sonata marathon at the Queen Elizabeth Hall.

Goode's approach to Beethoven grows from within a particularly wide cultural context, one that embraces all the arts, painting and literature being particular favourites. Some time ago he resolved to read Goethe's Egmont, a play that Beethoven both admired and set to music; and yet Goode felt just a little queasy about Goethe's 'slightly too good' moralism. 'But that's the wonderful thing about music,' he says: 'that it has the potential to express powers that lie outside of context, of period, language, translation, to reach something more basic. Moral idealism, for example, which might, through music, be translated into a universal language - without the particulars.' And without the conceptual limitations and misunderstandings engendered by mere words.

'One of the reasons people call Beethoven 'great' concerns the enormity of his passions, which are evinced through his music in perfect order. And yet the story of those final years, of the misery he put other people through, and his inability to see people for what they were, all point to a marked lack of human judgement on his part.' The popular image of Beethoven nevertheless seems to centre on heroics and the grim acceptance expressed through his death-mask. Goode smiles, leans back and ponders.

'We still have this irresistible urge to simplify. It happened in America with the poet Robert Frost, who was popularly identified with the 'old Vermont farmer'. And then suddenly someone suggested that the great Frost is the Frost of the dark poems. It seemed that overnight Frost had become the haunted poet of darkness and nightmare - although, in truth, his work encompasses both extremes. Readers of the Saturday Evening Post liked him because he was 'old homey' and 'good American values', the pragmatic, friendly Frost; while the intelligentsia only took to him because he wrote poems about death and the alienating human condition.

'Of course he was bigger than both of these intellectual polarities; that's why it pays to attend to what art, and music in particular, seems to be saying to you.' What it seems to say to us directly, rather than via some ossified interpretation. For example, don't we sometimes forget that there's humour in Beethoven, too?

'Yes - and the reverence with which the piano sonatas are handled sometimes dampens people's sense of just what's going on in the music. There's humour in both senses - of mood and giving way to mood, and in terms of the witty things that happen in the course of a particular piece. Take, for example, the middle of the Op 110 sonata (a rather serious work, you might say) where you encounter, among other things, tavern songs and the maddest of trios.'

But still there's that pervasive image of the furrowed brow and shaking fist. 'And that, too, is misleading. I'll give you some non-musical parallels. I was recently reading Still Life with a Bridle, a wonderful book of prose pieces about Holland by Zbigniew Herbert. Now, coming from Poland - a land long dominated by ideology - Herbert must have been particularly stimulated by this country of 'non-ideology', of domestic, middle-class life; or, as he himself said, the great country of things, things observed with love and without particular heroism. Jacob van Ruisdael was a favourite painter of Herbert's, until he realised that with Ruisdael (whom he still considers great) everything became part of the soul - he painted the landscape as if it were human: the stormy skies meant something. I'm not sure that I entirely agree with that, but Herbert wanted a 'world' that was a separate world; the purity of Piero della Francesca, perhaps, or the more modest landscape painters for whom a landscape was . . . simply a landscape, and not an image of the soul.'

But for Beethoven, isn't everything - or almost everything - an image of the soul? And could that be the reason why some modern audiences are more comfortable with the less confrontational Mozart, because Mozart doesn't challenge our moral conscience in quite the same way? Or perhaps Beethoven is actually too human?

'Beethoven fitted the first of Herbert's categories. For him, the trees spoke of God, and of course they spoke of humanity too. And yes, everything is humanised in Beethoven's world, and I think if there's one reason why people don't perhaps respond to him as deeply as they once did (or why they think they respond to Mozart), it's because humanising the world is not currently fashionable. In fact, the dehumanisation of art through deconstruction and various related ideas has taken its place: the trend now is more towards extracting the human element than incorporating it. Even the author is questioned - is he really the author, or is the language writing the work? Of course, put that way it sounds totally ridiculous; but one can't think of a more present creator in his work than Beethoven. And the fact that, in the current intellectual climate at least, his personality causes discomfort to people who'd rather think of a depersonalised Divine Creator, is perhaps part of the reason why they feel oppressed by his overbearing presence.'

It's a presence that Goode is happy to confront head-on. 'For me, the fights that Beethoven had, the sheer effort he put into composing and his struggles to contain a violent and chaotic emotional nature, led to music of extraordinary strength and consolatory power. He believed that those who understood his music would be 'saved', and it is surely true that much of his work serves as a profound source of strength. Beethoven engaged in a ceaseless struggle to make every part of a work function. I think that's a moral struggle, too: there's nothing in his work that doesn't function as part of its form, and the feeling of form is truly synonymous with the music's content. That was his battle, always; and that is why one can never have cause to say, 'What is this passage doing here?' Everything in Beethoven's world has a consequence and a meaning - in fact, it's as unlike life as possible]'

Richard Goode's cycle of the Beethoven piano sonatas opens at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 31 March, 7.45pm (then 6, 26 April, and further dates through to 29 November). Box-office: 071-928 8800; see page 39 for ticket offer

(Photographs omitted)