MUSIC : The great and the Goode

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Great, as opposed to merely good, musicians are the ones who manage to sound like nobody but themselves, and last weekend I heard two of these rare birds on successive nights: both of them Beethoven pianists of the first rank, but with almost nothing in common beyond the repertory they play. In other words, true, distinctive individuals. One was Maurizio Pollini, cool, elegant and unflustered at the Festival Hall; the other was Richard Goode, sweaty, turbulent, with the interpretative equivalent of his sleeves rolled up in Paris. It's tempting to contrast them as aristocrat and artisan, but more accurately the difference is to do with the way they read Beethoven in history (as fulfilment of the Classical past or architect of the Romantic future) and the extent to which their playing either takes the music as a "finished" work of art or tries to re-enact the struggle of creation.

Pollini was delivering the second instalment in his complete cycle of Beethoven sonatas, a project which is gathering momentum and beginning (after an equivocal start) to buzz. With extra seats packed on to the stage around the piano (available to under-25s for pounds 3.50, if you don't mind being part of the show) the hall was buoyant with a sense of event, and full. Complete cycle packages like this clearly make good box-office.

Whether they make artistic sense is another matter. That Beethoven at odd times of his life wrote 32 piano works in comparable sonata formats doesn't necessarily mean they have a collective integrity or bear concentrated listening - least of all in the chronological sequence Pollini follows in preference to strategic considerations of what sits comfortably with what. But at the end of the day, the validity of an artistic choice is made by the conviction with which the artist sees it through, and Pollini doesn't lack conviction. Arguably the most articulate and powerful of living keyboard intellects, his grouping of the Beethoven Op.10, 13 and 14 sonatas took its tone from the unarguably Classical stance of the Op.14s, with perfect clarity of presentation and a purely brilliant technique. Pollini's prestos really fly. The only problem is that they don't quite fly with joy - there's always a reserve, a cerebral detachment that stops short of surrender to emotional fullness and leaves romantically inclined music like the Opus 13 Pathetique sonata under-valued.

You wouldn't get that from Richard Goode, whose Paris recital marked my first visit to the new Cite de la Musique at La Villette. A soberly imposing new complex built to the command of Pierre Boulez out beyond the Gare du Nord, it incorporates the new Paris Conservatoire, a museum (not yet open) and a concert hall designed with stark austerity but one small concession to French kitsch in that the house-lights bathe the auditorium in ever-changing colours. If you've ever washed a shirt with a felt-tip pen in the pocket you'll know the effect.

More important, the acoustic works - a touch cold but direct and razor sharp - and from where I sat every detail came through loud and clear, which is just what you want with a performer whose detailing is so wonderfully imagined. Richard Goode's rise to fame has been slow and kapellmeister- ish. For decades he was an esteemed figure on the American chamber music circuit but made little impact on the international scene until 1993 when his recording of the complete Beethoven sonatas issued on Nonesuch took the piano market by storm. Allied live appearances in Britain convinced me (and many others) that his was some of the most interesting Beet- hoven playing around.

Ironically, he doesn't consider himself a Beethoven specialist and is sceptical about the virtues of "complete'' repertory packages. He has just begun a new Nonesuch series of the mature Mozart piano concertos (conductor-less, with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra) but isn't actually doing them all because, he says, he isn't in sympathy with them all.

The honesty of that admission matches the ruthless, sometimes brutal honesty of his playing. Polish, charm and beauty seem to be things he achieves incidentally, without ever aiming for them. Instead, he digs into the music like a farmer into soil: you feel him excavating meaning, with the stubborn physicality of an old-time American pioneer. And the result - as in the magnificent Beethoven Opus 111 in this Paris programme - really does seem to re-enact a process of composition, "making" the piece before your ears. It's also worth saying that Goode is one of the few pianists in Op.111 who manage to rebut any idea of the jagged 2nd Movement variations acting destructively on the benign Arietta theme. Through the most extreme of the distortions you're never allowed to lose sense of the underlying kinship of material that holds the whole movement together. Unity triumphs from diversity - much as it does on that far larger scale when Goode delivers his whole Beethoven sonata cycle and makes ``a work" out of 32.

The claims of Bach's Christmas Oratorio to be "a work" have always been equivocal. It's really a sequence of six free-standing cantatas written for liturgical use on different days during the Christmas season; and when Stephen Layton's choir Polyphony put their voices to it at St John's Smith Square on Tuesday they gave themselves licence to do just the first three - a truncation that wouldn't in itself have left anyone feeling short-changed. But the performance might. Not that there is anything wrong with Polyphony. It's a superb young choir - precise, agile, cleanly balanced, no stodge - and Stephen Layton directs it inspirationally. But he was unlucky with his soloists - only Ian Bostridge really shone among them - and unluckier still with his orchestra, the Brandenburg Ensemble. I don't know what's happened to this band, but from the tawdry, sourly tuned, lacklustre playing at St John's I'd say it was in crisis. Or alternatively on one Christmas gig too many.