By Melinda Bargreen
Any chance to hear the pianist Richard Goode is a chance to savor. Goode’s return to Seattle after a 9-year absence to play the President’s Piano Series drew a good-sized crowd to Meany Theater for a masterly program of selections from Janacek’s “On an Overgrown Path,” and Schumann’s “Davidsbündlertänze,” with Book I of Debussy’s Preludes for dessert.
The revered pianist, a Beethoven specialist who turns 71 this year, now uses scores for some of the performance (everything except the Schumann, in the present case) – presumably so that he can concentrate on exercising his imagination instead of his memory. Most of the time Goode didn’t look at the scores anyway; they were probably just there for security’s sake.
The Janacek, a set of four atmospheric character pieces, made a nice hors d’oeuvre for the larger-scale works that followed. Schumann’s “Davidsbündlertänze” is one of the landmarks of 19th-century keyboard repertoire, and Goode gave them beautifully characterized readings, with perfectly judged dynamics and an exquisitely velvety touch in many of the pieces.
It was a happy audience that returned from intermission to hear the last half of the program, the Debussy Book I Preludes. Interestingly, Goode also chose these pieces for the final half of his last Seattle recital in 2005 (preceded by Beethoven and Mozart sonatas, music that I would have preferred to the Janacek). As he did in 2005, Goode gave an exquisitely Impressionist reading of the Debussy pieces, which include such favorites as “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair.” But there were some changes, too, in his approach: this time, the “Engulfed Cathedral” Prelude was taken at a brisker pace that destroyed some of the mysterious, stately majesty offered by Debussy’s music. Even with the score open on the piano, Goode made minor errors in some of the chords.
But elsewhere the playing was so lucid and so crystalline that it seemed almost magical, with moments of exuberant whimsy that always came as a surprise. No one can draw more beautiful sonorities from the keyboard, including a shimmering, almost liquid sound that completely belies the piano’s status as a percussion instrument. This was playing to make the listener forget that Goode has earned his fame as an interpreter of Beethoven, and to appreciate his painterly skills as a keyboard colorist.