When I interviewed Richard Goode, I reminded him that, as far back as 1977, Leonard Bernstein had expressed astonishment that a pianist of such skill was not playing the Brahms piano concertos all over the world. With a trademark diffident chuckle, but not the slightest hint of bitterness, Goode replied that, "It was a great thing to hear Lenny say. But I thought that he might help – and he didn't!" Now, of course, he has risen to his rightful place in the pianistic pantheon, and garners the kind of rave reviews in all the world's major musical capitals that even Bernstein might have taken pause to envy.
Goode gave his first recital in his native New York in 1962 when he was 18 years old. After that, he gained a reputation locally as a fine chamber player and an insightful pianist, but he was also thought to be almost too much of a "musician's musician". The invitations from the thrusting management and promotion agencies did not come, and neither did the glitzy dates that would have brought his name to a wider public. Rather than yield to professional frustration, Goode calmly set about deepening and broadening his relationship with the music. Self-help, a near-saintly patience and a nurturing record company (Nonesuch) kept him going.
Goode was 47 before he gave his first Carnegie Hall recital. The New York Times critic wrote, "It is difficult to know why it took 29 years... but the event was worth waiting for. In a perfect world, all debutants would be so well prepared musically and technically."
As a musician of genuinely shy temperament and a lifelong sufferer from stage-fright, Goode was never going to be what he describes as one of "those people who just trot out there like racehorses". He admits that, at one time, he "had a revulsion against the idea of ambition". Now that he is much more familiar with the concert platform, Goode says that he is able to enjoy what he can learn from playing in public, and has developed a special relationship with the pieces that he repeats a number of times on tour.
Early studies with Nadia Reisenberg were beneficial but not always to his taste. Her emphasis on fluidity of line and beauty of tone seemed to thwart some of the more essential feelings of his adolescence. He told me that Horszowski had been the most illuminating of his teachers, but that Rudolf Serkin was by far the most profound influence: "What he had was a great sense of drama." That feeling – that a performance can appear to be a matter of life and death – is something that Goode endorses, but never with undue ostentation or flamboyant gesture. His is playing that combines the drama with refinement and long-pondered wisdom.
Symphony Hall, Birmingham (0121-780 3333; www.necgroup.co.uk/symphony) Fri, 8pm; QEH, London SE1 (020-7960 4201; www.rfh.org.uk) Sun, 7.45pm, playing as part of the South Bank's 2002-3 International Piano Series
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