CLASSICAL MUSIC: The Goode life

Until only seven years ago, stage-fright kept Richard Goode from enjoying the solo career he was born to. Now he's making up for lost time. Here he talks to Michael Church about singing while you work, the pressures of touring, and why he spends time off reading Trollope
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What does it take to lure people from their homes for a Saturday- night performance of ultra-familiar classics by Bach, Chopin and Schubert? One answer is a pianist of the calibre of Richard Goode. But those who pack the Wigmore Hall tomorrow night will be there as much for this enigmatic New Yorker's singular aura, as for the intensely pondered poetry of his playing.

Yet he has few observable quirks, beyond the now fashionable one of singing along as he plays. When he describes himself as "a vicarious person" - a reader and frequenter of museums - it's the truth. He's cautious, cultivated, reasonable, with a life as well-ordered as a globe-trotting career will allow. The aura has to do with his history, which has left a hard stamp on his gnarled face and powerfully pent-up physique.

That history is itself a kind of void: a refusal to start the solo career for which he was born until he was almost 50. For refusal, read running away from 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." It propelled him into psychoanalysis (which didn't cure it) and only lifted later, as he played more and grew a thicker skin. "But as Rudolf Serkin [his virtuoso tutor] used to say, 'It's no big trick to play the piano when you're not nervous.'" Fear is a necessary part of the game.

Goode's Carnegie Hall debut in 1990 was a sensation: it was followed by a New Yorker profile - who is this man? where has he been all these years? - of a length exceptional even for that long-winded organ. He was a piano-tuner's son from the Bronx, of Ukrainian-Jewish extraction (the family name was Guzman). His talent was spotted early, and his musical education followed the usual elite path. But he'd emerged from adolescence clutching Flaubert's letters, and shying away from the usual adult hurdles. He became that slightly sad cliche, a "musicians' musician".

I first encountered him at Steinways, as he was preparing for a concert in a Beethoven sonata cycle. Being early for the interview, I eavesdropped on what was clearly a very physical labour: Goode was swaying, sweating, and loudly singing the bass line, as though encouraging his hands to further effort. This being a sonata ending in a string of pauses and afterthoughts, I mistimed my entrance: though miffed at the intrusion, he was too polite to say so, merely requesting time to change his sodden shirt. To my apology for asking questions he must have fielded a hundred times, he replied that - as his view of Beethoven was constantly changing - he was interested to see what he would say.

There were things about that view which have remained constant: his admiration for Beethoven's architecture; his fascination with the late sonatas; and his assumption that he would never penetrate the mystery of the Hammerklavier. "But I now feel less close to Beethoven in his heroic mode. And I'm increasingly amazed at some of the things he published." He illustrated this by playing one of the Op 119 Bagatelles: 10 seconds of pure craziness. And he instanced the second cadenza to the Fourth Piano Concerto. "It's as though he was saying 'Away with this poetry, this is all too beautiful. Let's break things up a bit!' That cadenza is a blot on the piece. But these things have to do with the spirit of improvisation, not the spirit of eternal masterpieces. And the spirit of the moment is what you want in a concert. It would be terrible to play the same thing in exactly the same way, time after time, like filling in the blanks." Goode punctuated these thoughts with quick, blinking smiles, and sudden thunderclaps of laughter.

He also mounted a robust defence of his vocal accompaniments, particularly with the sonata he had just been playing. "It's a piece that requires audience participation - it's funny. It's annoying if you end it in total silence, without the sense that the audience are in on the joke. As annoying as when you play a piece which ends in stillness and serenity, and somebody applauds before the last notes have died away."

Or, he might have added, when they barge in on your practice before you've finished. There was aggression here, firmly under wraps.

At the time of our Steinways conversation, Goode had just returned from a nine-month period away from the concert platform - "I needed time to play and think and see my friends and be home" - and admitted the readjustment had been painful. "I panicked, and overpractised in the month before I went back to performing, and gave myself tendonitis. I wouldn't arrange things that way again."

During those nine months out he discovered Brahms, and he is now - two years on - performing him non-stop. "Some of his late pieces are miracles of ingenuity, marvellous things to spend time with."

And which author is he currently spending time off with? "Trollope. Phineas Redux." For heaven's sake, why? "I find the world of the Pallisers very comfortable to inhabit. Trollope knows a great deal about human beings, about their ambivalences and uncertainties. I find myself drawn to modest art - art which doesn't claim too much, and is painstakingly intent on being accurate, rather than dramatic. Trollope's registering of grey areas is as precise as some of those lesser 17th-century Dutch masters. And he doesn't stop me thinking about Brahms." But they're chalk and cheese! "How they would feel about each other, I don't know. But with Brahms there's a similar precision, a reason for every note."

Some worlds mesh, other clash: Goode has a story to demonstrate the point. "I was sitting with friends watching the sun go down in Greece, and they asked me to put some music on, so I put on Debussy's L'apres-midi d'un faune, and it chimed perfectly with the sunset's beauty and serenity. Then I put on one of Beethoven's Razumovsky quartets - and I couldn't look at the sunset; I had to close my eyes. It was impossible to focus on the two things at once. Beethoven's and Debussy's worlds are polar opposites: all the things important to one are anathema to the other."

Goode admits that his musical heart is in the 18th and 19th centuries. "A lot of contemporary music depends on a language which must be learnt. 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. But, as somebody once said, our dislikes are as important as our likes." He sees no reason to apologise for this narrowness. "As a listener and aficionado, you can afford to have a much broader range. As a performer, you have to feel you're creating the music out of yourself." For that purpose, merely liking a work - or finding it interesting - is not enough.

But he's got plenty of things going on in his home turf. He's just begun recording a series of lesser-known Mozart concertos; he's accompanying - he has, he says, "no problem with the connotations of the word" - the soprano Dawn Upshaw; and he's planning duo recitals with his violinist wife. And he's a great believer in the amateur tradition: when I mention my own amateurism, he switches into tutorial mode. "Try Haydn's piano trios - not very difficult, but some of them are great works. And nobody bothers to play them in public."

Germany and Austria are the countries he most enjoys performing in, because their amateur tradition is still strong, and he likes an audience to have some inkling of what it means to playn Richard Goode plays the Wigmore Hall 7.30pm tomorrow (booking: 0171-935 2141); his latest release is Mozart Piano Concertos Nos 18 and 20, with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, on Nonesuch 7 559 79439

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