The Well-Tempered Ear

Richard Goode’s Beethoven piano concertos set a top pick. What is your favorite Beethoven piano concerto?

October 25, 2009
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By Jacob Stockinger

Right now, even as I am writing, I am listening to one of the most enjoyable classical CD releases (pictured at right) I’ve heard in a very long time.Goode CD cover

The acclaimed American pianist Richard Goode—who is very likely to be booked for the Wisconsin Union Theater’s 2010-11 season, according to WUT cultural arts director Ralph Russo  — is performing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2, which was in reality the first one that Beethoven composed, but the second one he published.

Over the summer, Nonesuch release Goode’s readings of the five piano concertos in a specially-priced, 3-CD Nonesuch set with Ivan Fischer conducting the Budapest Festivals Orchestra. (The veteran and award-winning Fischer, a student of famed Nikolaus Harnoncourt, is the principal conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., and guests conducts all around Europe and the world. Would the Madison Symphony Orchestra consider booking him for a guest stint?)

I find these interpretations well-balanced readings with lots of dialogue between the piano and the orchestral instruments as well as an energy that never veers into the eccentric. (This set is a good bet for a Grammy nomination and even a win.)

Goode, whose complete cycle of 32 Beethoven piano sonatas has been a standard measure for well over 15 years, turns in fine performances that remind me of Rudolf Serkin, who just happened to be one of Goode’s teachers.

Goode (pictured at right), something of a musical chameleon who is also terrific in Bach, Mozart, Schubert and BrahmsGoode among others, takes a more restrained and classical approach than some other virtuosos such as Martha Argerich. This summer, he performed an intriguing Bach-Chopin concert in Carnegie Hall – an event I would like him to repeat in the studio and have issued in a recital format.

Goode is no showboat and he sees Beethoven more as an apex of classicism that as a full-blown Romantic. Sure, you can find more exciting performances of any particular concerto. (My second choice these days is Yefim Bronfman’s set with David Zinman and the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra for the budget label Arte Nova.)

But this is a wonderful set, and a convenient, compact set on the bookshelf. I, for one, find the five concertos more listenable and likable than the piano sonatas, taken as a whole. And I also find all five piano concertos more consistent than even the nine symphonies.

My favorite concerto, like that of many listeners, is the Fourth, which has poetry and virtuosic subtleties galore. The heroic “Emperor” is still striking and the pivotal Third, composed in that most Beethovenian key of C minor, contains the right mix of drama and poetry.

Still, these days I really like the early concertos with their touches of Mozart and Haydn. I have soft spots especially for the First (published first, but actually composed second) in C major, Op. 15, and the Second, in B-flat Major, Op. 19.

Neither is performed very often, but both show Beethoven possessed all the gifts and uniqueness that marks his mature works right from the beginning of his career. (The same goes for his early piano sonatas, especially Op. 2, Nos. 1, 2 and 3, and Op. 7, and Op. 10, Nos. 1, 2 and 3, which are often overlooked for the more heroic middle-period sonatas and the more profound and quirky late sonatas. And I feel the same way about the six early string quartets, Op. 18, and the three piano trios, Op. 1.)


What do you think is the best Beethoven piano concerto?

Right now I rank them, from top to bottom, as 4, 2, 3, 1, 5. In what order do you rank all five?

What is your favorite performance of your favorite concerto?

And what is your favorite complete cycle of Beethoven piano concertos?

If you know this new Richard Goode recording, what do you think of it?

The Ear wants to hear.

In the meantime, excuse me while I return to Beethoven’s Second — piano concerto, that is, not symphony.

Posted in Classical music

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