Last night as part of the gala celebration of its 40th season, San Francisco Performances (SFP) presented a one-hour recital by pianist Richard Goode in Herbst Theatre, part of the Veterans Building where the rest of the gala festivities were taking place. Goode has been giving SFP recitals since 1985, and last night marked his thirteenth visit. Over the course of that hour, he devoted much of his program to traditional favorites, focusing on Frédéric Chopin and Claude Debussy; but he began the occasion on a more adventurous note (so to speak).
His opening selection was Leoš Janáček’s four-movement piano cycle In the Mists, composed at a dark time late in his life. The Wikipedia author for this composition notes that all of the movements are written in “misty” keys with five or six flats; and Eric Bromberger’s notes for the program book suggest that the composer himself may have felt “lost ‘in the mist.’” After considerable neglect, this composition has begun to make its mark in discographies. I have lost track of the number of recordings I now have; but I recently made note of its appearance in the release of the Columbia albums recorded by Rudolf Firkušný (who knew Janáček personally). Last night, however, was my first opportunity to listen to the music in recital.
Without having a score in hand to count accidentals, what emerged from watching Goode perform was a greater appreciation of structure, particularly at the fine-grained level. Much of the music is gestural, reducing themes to the briefest of passages. By observing Goode’s performance, the attentive listener could appreciate the transparency of the resulting texture, bringing clarity not only to each of those gestures but also to the delicate fabrics of interplay that the composer had woven. Strictly from the perspective of “content,” each of the four movements is modest in scope. However, in the spirit of Buckminster Fuller, each movement has its own expressive way of saying more and more with less and less.
The closest Goode came to Janáček’s capacity for brevity during the remainder of his program could be found in his selections of Chopin mazurkas, the three collected in Opus 59 preceded by the second of the three Opus 56 mazurkas. While these pieces are relatively short, each one captures a contrast of emotional dispositions. Goode knew exactly how to evoke those mood shifts without ever overplaying them. Once again, brevity was the key to intensity of expression, particularly last night when the mazurkas were presented in contrast to the more expansive Chopin nocturne selection, the second (in the key of E-flat major) from Opus 55.
However, expansiveness really opened up in the Debussy offerings. Goode began with the three pieces collected in the second Images book. They were followed by the second of the three pieces in the Estampes (prints) collection, “La soirée dans Grenade” (evening in Granada), and the “stand-alone” “L’isle joyeuse” (the joyful island). This last selection was also “image-based,” inspired by Jean-Antoine Watteau’s painting The Embarkation for Cythera, depicting eighteenth-century French aristocrats about to leave for an island that provides the venue for a celebration of Venus. The painting itself does not depict the celebration on the island, preferring instead to show some of the couples getting an early start on the spirit of the occasion:
The Embarkation for Cythera (painting by Jean-Antoine Watteau, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)
Each of Goode’s selections involved Debussy’s imaginative explorations of relations between the visual and the auditory, particularly when the latter is confined to a piano keyboard, rather than the diverse coloration afforded by an orchestral ensemble. Yet through his attentiveness to the details in Debussy’s “text” and his skill at endowing those details with expressiveness, one could readily detect the implications of a piece’s title in the music that was associated with that title. One might say that Goode gave a masterfully “explanatory” account of Debussy’s “images;” and those accounts made for highly absorbing listening experiences.
After that abundance of Debussy, Goode turned to the brevity of Franz Schubert for his encore selection. He played the third (in F minor) of the six Moments musicaux compositions (D. 780). This was given an account playful enough to recall the opening of a Marx Brothers movie in which Chico is teaching a roomful of kids (each at a separate piano) to play this piece (adding a “punch line” that is pure Chico). Festive occasions should always end on such an upbeat note!