The American pianist Richard Goode has always been the most unassuming of keyboard poets, renowned first and foremost for the insight and unerring eloquence of his accounts of the core Austro-German repertoire. In his playing at its best, the qualities of rigor and reverie feel freshly reinvented in each other’s image.
Now 76, Goode in recent years has pulled back from some of his commitments, including his co-directorship of the Marlboro Music School and Festival, but he is still active as ever on the recital circuit. On Saturday night he returned to Jordan Hall for an appearance presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston.
Goode’s ethos as a performer aspires toward the human rather than the super-human. The great monuments of the keyboard are not athletic obstacles to conquer but timeless truths to summon, works of art whose light we sense in different ways, from different angles, depending on the season of our own lives. There is a certain humility here, too — one that, these days, feels almost countercultural.
Along these lines, Goode had originally thought to build Saturday’s program around Bartok’s Suite (Op. 14), he told one interviewer, but realized he could not play it up to his own standards and so he set it aside. Those vertiginous standards, and the lofty body of work documented by his own recordings, mean that Goode has a lot to live up to in live performances. Saturday night’s program opened with an account of Bach’s Partita No. 5 that reflected much of the wonderfully lithe shaping of his 1999 Nonesuch recording of this same music but, alas, could not match that earlier reading in its clarity and crystalline articulation. Janacek’s “In the Mists” followed in a coolly atmospheric performance that was true to this music’s episodic nature, by turns tumultuous and wistfully lyrical, if not perhaps as commandingly dramatic as the music occasionally required.
The remainder of the evening was given over to music by Chopin and Debussy. Goode’s Chopin was particularly transfixing, with a beautifully sensitive account of the Nocturne (Op. 55, No. 2) juxtaposed by a selection of four vigorously dispatched Mazurkas. Goode’s selection of Debussy — mostly taken from Book 2 of “Images,” from the Etudes, and from “Estampes” — was opulent in sound and utterly discerning in conception, even if the sheer quantity of Debussy’s music to the exclusion of Goode’s other interpretive touchstones left one wishing for more.
Fortunately, a pair of encores gave audience members at least a taste of Goode’s Schubert (“Moments Musicaux,” No. 3) and his Brahms (Intermezzo, Op. 117, No. 1). The Brahms in particular was a study in the gently autumnal sublime — a wordless benediction delivered with a restrained yet softly glowing beauty of the sort that leads critics to throw in the towel on their own limited vocabularies and reach instead for poetry. This one left the hall with a line of congruous gratitudes by Czeslaw Milosz in mind: “Cathedral of my enchantment, autumn wind, I grew old giving thanks.”
RICHARD GOODE, piano
Presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston.
At: Jordan Hall, Nov. 9.