Gulda Plays Mozart & Gulda

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MOZART: Rondos for Piano & Orchestra: in A, K. 386; in D, K. 382.* Piano Sonata in C, K. 330. GULDA: Improvisations 1 & 2. Play Piano Play: Excerpts. Suite for Piano, E-Piano & Drums: Aria / Friedrich Gulda, pianist; *Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra; *Leopold Hager, conductor / BR Klassik BRK900713 (live, Munich: *October 4, 1969; June 27, 1982)

Why is it that I love Friedrich Gulda’s Mozart so much and tend to dislike so many other pianists playing it? Not all, mind you; I enjoy Nadia Reisenberg, Annie Fischer and Clara Haskil in the concertos and Ronald Brautigam in the sonatas. But not many. I think it’s because Gulda, like those others, played his music with guts. He didn’t play it like some mincing drawing-room quadrille to be admired by slothful wealthy patrons but not by the general public.

Of course, much of this stems from Gulda’s own aesthetic, which was that music should be eaten by the performer and then internalized, to be played out as if it were part of your DNA. His lifelong affinity for jazz, which he eventually came to play pretty well, had a lot to do with it—that, plus the fact that as a jazz musician he was, ipso facto, a creator himself. The Improvisation No. 1 on this album starts out like a tumbling pile of bricks on a construction site, only to evolve into something quite simple, tonal and lovely. But the undercurrent of the construction site is still there under the lace and gingerbread. Only Gulda, it seems, could juxtapose two such wildly different moods and make them work together. Moreover, the delicate ending of his Improvisation makes a perfect intro to the Mozart Piano Sonata K. 330, which he limns with surprising elegance. The wild man of the keyboard could also have his tender moments, and still make them work.

So does this CDs appeal primarily to Gulda fans? I suppose it all depends on your viewpoint. Surely, Mozart’s music outweighs his own. Twenty-four minutes of music are of his own compositions, 31 minutes are of Mozart’s, and I can’t even think of another pianist who played the Rondos as well as this. Leopold Hager, well known and respected for his Mozart interpretations, matches Gulda’s vivacity and sense of fun in conducting these two pieces. It’s interesting to note how young Hager was at the time of recording, only 34 years old. Gulda himself was five years older, but had been playing jazz professionally for more than a decade by then. The classical world wanted him to go away and stop returning to the classics while the jazzniks wanted him to give them up, but Gulda would do neither. He stayed right in his comfort zone, which was to go back and forth between the two, often in the same concert. He wanted his jazz audiences to appreciate Mozart and Beethoven, his twin idols, as he wanted his classical audiences to appreciate jazz. So he just kept it up until he died. He did vocals under a pseudonym, which he pretended was an entirely different person. At one point in the 1990s he even faked his own death just to see what the obituaries would say. He was that kind of guy.

The second Improvisation takes the opposite route of the first, starting out in a classical vein and become more jazz-like as it progresses. Gulda’s sense of jazz rhythm was always a little stiff; being Austrian, and raised in the classics, swinging didn’t come easily to him; but he never stopped trying. It was his life’s blood. Perhaps his most swinging compositions were the set of “etudes” he published under the title Play Piano Play. I’ve yet to see any pianist record the full set. I was a little surprised by how romantic, in a pop-music sense, his excerpt from the Suite for Piano, E-Piano and Drums was. Evidently, Gulda had his sentimental side as well.

Sorry if this review isn’t as musically detailed as usual, but when listening to Gulda’s own pieces and improvisations I just let my mind wander inside of his and follow it where it goes. And so should you. Recommended!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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