Richard Goode likes to perform the works of bedrock composers of the past, and the latest such creative giant to attract his attention is J.S. Bach. While the highly respected veteran pianist had performed all-Bach recital programs before, what has rekindled his interest are the composer’s Sinfonias Nos. 1-15, BWV 787-801.
In 1722-23, Bach added these two-minute pieces, which are perhaps better known as Three-Part Inventions, to his Little Keyboard Book for Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, written for his eldest son, who was taking lessons from his father. These miniatures span every major and minor key from C up to B and are meant to demonstrate how even a handful of notes can be expanded, developed and reinvented to create a compelling, complete work.
“I’ve only played a few of the Three-Part Inventions before,” Goode said. “Then I started studying them as a whole, and I found them to be an amazing thing to do—to do 15 of these of pieces, one after another, each of them very short, incredibly varied and incredibly interesting. I first doubted whether 15 of them in a row would somehow feel like too much, but the more I play them, the more remarkable they become in the variation, the emotional richness, the different ways Bach composes each two-page piece. He wrote them on two pages so there wouldn’t be any page turns, so he was a practical musician.”
The Sinfonias or Three-Part Inventions will be the centerpiece of Goode’s latest all-Bach program, which he will perform April 3 in a Symphony Center Presents Piano Series recital. Filling out the lineup will be contrasting suites, French Suite No. 5 in G Major, BWV 816, “a very gentle, very positive and radiant piece,” and the “very dramatic” Partita No. 2 in C Minor, BWV 826, and two pairs of preludes and fugues from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II. The Italian Concerto in F Major, BWV 971, a piece Goode has not performed previously, will conclude the concert. The latter is a fascinating work to perform on the piano, he said, because it was written for the harpsichord and was meant to present that instrument in a kind of imitation of the orchestra with soloists.
Although the Italian Concerto was once popular with pianists, it has fallen out favor in recent years. “I think there are certain pieces that get very popular,” Goode said. “Then just because they become very popular, people decide to let them go for a while. At least I remember when I was studying piano as a kid, this was a very much played piece. I remember my teacher, Rudolf Serkin, played it. Everybody played it. And now, I haven’t seen it on programs very much. Anyway, it’s a splendid, stunning piece.”
Even just a decade or two ago, controversy swirled around the idea of playing Bach’s keyboard works on a modern piano, an instrument that was developed after his death. But Goode said that such debates are over, and he and other pianists such as András Schiff and Angela Hewitt regularly perform Bach’s works on the piano. “For one thing,” Goode said, “the music is larger than the instrument, obviously, and is even not that specific to the instrument. These pieces were written for clavier [a generic term for a stringed keyboard instrument], and Bach probably played them on the harpsichord or clavichord. Maybe some of them on the organ. And then, the fortepiano was developed in his time, and though he was supposed not to have liked the early fortepiano, later on he was known to have sold a [Gottfried] Silbermann fortepiano. His son, Carl Philipp, said that if his father [who died in 1750] had known the fortepianos of the 1780s, he would have preferred them.”
What is most important, Goode said, is the quality of tonal relations that players achieve regardless of whatever instrument they are playing. The piano has certain advantages over the harpsichord, including a wider dynamic range, and it is the job of a pianist to make Bach’s music sound as expressive as possible on it.
One of the best-known modern interpreters of Bach was Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, who gained lasting, international fame with his milestone 1955 recording of The Goldberg Variations. Though Goode regards Gould as an “amazing phenomenon” and acknowledges him as major artist, he’s not a fan of his playing, which he finds too idiosyncratic. Living keyboard performers of Bach whom Goode does admire include Schiff and Murray Perahia. Among Bach interpreters of the past, he is a fan of the “old-fashioned but very beautiful playing” of Edwin Fischer (1886-1960), who recorded the The Well-Tempered Clavier; Edward Aldwell (1938-2006), who released Bach recordings on the Nonesuch and Hanssler Classics labels, and Mieczyslaw Horszowski (1892-1993), one of his teachers at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
As for future directions in his musical performances, Goode wants to explore the keyboard works of famed French Baroque composers François Couperin and Jean-Philippe Rameau, as well as those of later composers like Claude Debussy, who were influenced by them. And no doubt fans of this first-rate pianist will be eagerly awaiting to hear what he turns up.
Kyle MacMillan, former classical music critic of the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts writer.