Pianist Richard Goode's remarkable Celebrity Series recital at Jordan Hall on Saturday — Ludwig van Beethoven's last three piano sonatas, along with a handful of his bagatelles — navigated between late Beethoven and "late Beethoven." The former: a chronically ill but still imaginatively vital and increasingly experimental composer. The latter: like so much about Beethoven, now a template, in this case for envelope-pushing, misunderstood-in-its-own-time genius. Performing such music only heightens classical music's inherent tension between reiterating the repertoire and renewing it. How does one faithfully represent trial balloons that have turned into holy writ?
Goode's interpretations amplified the music's more radical aspects, sometimes by simply refusing to massage them. In the Sonata in E major (Op. 109), Goode often phrased past sudden transitions, arriving not at the start of a new sentence or section, but at the delayed realization that change has occurred, neatly creating an air of both abruptness and inevitability. In the Sonata in A-flat major (Op. 110), Goode emphasized the music's sheer continuance, changes of color or volume or speed highlighting the ways Beethoven shifted gears to keep the music going.
The last, C-minor Sonata (Op. 111) took that tendency to extremes, the essence of the music becoming its impulsive and compulsive motion. All three sonatas feature finales of open-ended musical process: fugue in Opus 110, variation sets in Opuses 109 and 111. Goode's focus on moment-to-moment momentum and contrast made those movements meditative in their nonstop but omni-directional eloquence: long, strange trips nevertheless arriving at unorthodox profundity.
If Goode's choices underscored Beethoven's audacity, the magnitude of his technique reaffirmed Beethoven's grace. Goode's touch was unfailingly deep, solid, and resonant even in soft passages, lending definition and intent to every note. And his virtuosity was invisibly profound, making Beethoven's most awkward passages feel natural. It is no small feat to have such knotty music seem to fall effortlessly into place.
Programming only the last six of the Bagatelles (Op. 119) reinforced Goode's manifesto for Beethoven's innovation: skipping over juvenilia Beethoven recycled for the set in favor of the late, gnomic sketches he wrote to round it out. And, by eschewing the sonatas' monumental scope and reputation, the bagatelles embodied Beethoven's mercurial imagination in unusually pure form. But it was Goode's performance that, again, spanned the music and the myth: Straightforwardly esoteric, disinclined to soft-pedal the score's irascible originality, Goode still left one eager to try to keep up with Beethoven's unruly invention.
Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@