A concert of the Op. 109, Op. 110, and Op. 111 piano sonatas could very easily be delivered with the kind of self-seriousness that turns Beethoven into the Beethoven of legend, a daunting, impenetrable titan, the kind of Beethoven consecrated high on the proscenium arches of so many American concert halls. The brilliance of this Richard Goode recital lay not simply in the ferocity and radiance of his playing, in his refusal to reconcile the extremes of Beethoven’s late style, but in his capacity to render Beethoven immediate, humorous, and human.

Richard Goode © Sasha Gusov
Richard Goode
© Sasha Gusov

Playing the last six of the eleven Op. 119 Bagatelles as a palette cleanser before the Op. 111 no doubt helped, especially as Goode took them so wittily. These pieces, written and modified at various points in the early 1820s, defy even the modified expectations one brings to late Beethoven, and in Goode’s hands they charmed and surprised in equal measure. No. 6, for instance, started as an off-kilter song, presenting Webernian ideas in a very different idiom, but it gathered pace and took a brief eternity to conclude. No. 7 and no. 11 both looked to the three sonatas that surrounded the Bagatelles, but Goode’s emphasis here was rightly on the jokes Beethoven layers all over his shortest pieces. No. 10, barely fifteen seconds long, seemed to poke fun at Beethoven’s own extraordinarily long codas by presenting only the coda to an unheard earlier piece: rarely has a musical joke provoked such raucous laughter at Carnegie Hall.

Of course, the musical and emotional burdens fell on the late, great sonatas. The tradition of playing them together is long, but one most readily associates hearing these works in concert as a trilogy with the most resolutely intellectual of pianists: Alfred Brendel, Mitsuko Uchida, and Maurizio Pollini, say.

Goode does not have that demeanour, and his current tour is the first time he has played the sonatas in one go, but these knowing, vigorous, and wise performances were enthralling all the same. All of them benefited from Goode’s sense of structural imagination, as sonata forms broke down into more episodic, variable movements, as well as his ability to draw colour from his Steinway through judicious use of the soft pedal as much as crashing metallic power from the forearms. Goode turns 70 next month, and in his maturity he, like Pollini and Brendel, seems ever keener to take artistic risks even (perhaps especially) at the risk of technical slips. The result is Beethoven playing that is at once relatable and inspirational, exactly as it should be.

The first two movements of the Op. 109 were particularly violent, juxtaposing the savage and the seraphic, the focused and the fantastical. Goode managed to capture the character of Beethoven’s mood swings in the Prestissimo middle movement without turning them into caricatures. The long variations of the third movement – three times as long as the first two combined – sang tastefully, without lingering unduly and conceived in the broadest of arcs. There was something almost Schumannesque in the tone here, though married of course to an architectural intensity that could only be Beethoven’s. On a purely technical level Goode astonished too, with the gradual, magical splitting of crotchets into quavers and semiquavers and trills sounding ineffably natural. So too did the revival of the opening song, returning with almost nonchalant, impertinent ease.

The Op. 110 was finer still. Through Goode, one could almost imagine Beethoven testing, playing with a new piano in the first movement, seeing how far it would go. Goode pushed this music’s diverse tempers hard here, finding a dignified insistence by means of a grace more often found in Mozart. The second movement – as fractured as anything in Beethoven’s piano works – was left its rhetorical ruptures distinct, resolved only through force in the travails of a finale moving slowly away from A flat minor. Again Goode was clear-eyed about this “Klagender Gesang” (“Song of Lament”), with a wafting freedom of tempo that never lost sight of its grounding, dependent on the shape of the aria’s phrase and later the progress of the fugal lines he picked out at any given time. Moods snapped and lurched, but they found their way back to that opening grace and that opening A flat major through vast and distant harmonic struggles, with the final, triumphant chords smacked out to emphasise the arrival home.

It was hard to believe that there could have been more at stake for the Op. 111, but its flourishing introduction instantly dictated that there was. Once more Goode was capable of surprising aggression, growling his way into the Allegro con brio low down on the keyboard and maintaining the intensity at dangerous speeds. Form and atmosphere became one in a movement of sheer risk. While the Arietta seemed to move a little briskly on first hearing, Goode underlined the variations’ constant lilt, a swinging feeling that hits its heights in the boogie-woogie section. Breezy this might have been but it was never pushed on, only pulled by some invisible, distant force towards a final, bewitchingly simple conclusion. As if to underline that this was not Beethoven for hushed reverence, but living Beethoven, the last C major chord was not held forever, but gently placed and let go with immaculate voicing, a quaver just as it is marked.