STUTTGART SOLO RECITALS, 1966-1979/ BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonatas Nos. 8, 14, 16, 17, 26, 28, 29, 31. Für Elise. 6 Eccosaises in Eb. “Eroica” Variations. J.S. BACH: English Suite No. 2: Bourée. The Well-Tempered Clavier: Book I, Prelude & Fugue No. 8; Book 2, Preludes and Fugues Nos. 5, 17, 20, 23 & 24.+ Chromatic Fantasy & Fugue in D min.+ SCHUBERT: Impromptu in Ab. Sonata in A min., D. 845. COUPERIN: Pieces de Clavecin, Book 4, 26th Ordre in F# min. GULDA: Prelude and Fugue (2 vers.) Shuffle. MOZART: Piano Sonatas Nos. 13, 14, 18. Rondo in D. Fantasie in D min. HANDEL: Keyboard Suite No. 4 in E min. DEBUSSY: Préludes, Book II. THE INNER CIRCLE: Perspective No. 1*+ / Friedrich Gulda, pno/+clavichord/*recorder/*crumhorn/*voc; *Ursula Anders, dm/perc/recorder/voc; *Günther Rabl, bs / SWR Music SWR19081CD
Friedrich Gulda, hailed as a classical piano genius by age 19, had a career that could most charitably be termed unconventional. By the mid-1950s he was so infatuated with jazz that he insisted on playing a set at Birdland the following year, which received poor reviews, but he kept honing his skills and eventually became a respectable if not always swinging jazz improviser and composer. He then vacillated between his most-loved classical composers—Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Debussy—and jazz concerts for the rest of his life, sometimes combining both in the same program. Most of these recordings were made at the actual recitals. The Inner Circle performance is a recreation of the program he played with Ursula Anders and Günther Rabl on June 21, 1979, the tape of which is missing, in a program he gave on October 31, 1979 at the Vienna Konzerthaus.
Gulda’s Beethoven was solid and musical but took no risks with the music. One will listen in vain for the interpretive magic woven into these sonatas by the likes of Arthur Schnabel, Walter Gieseking, Wilhelm Backhaus, Van Cliburn, Annie Fischer, John O’Conor, Craig Sheppard or Michael Korstick, yet there is nothing wrong with them. They are essentially Beethoven urtext, straight readings of the score, and yet there are moments of great delicacy alternated with power when needed. They are not mechanical performances despite their being in strict time, and he gave you exactly what the composer called for. I will take this any day over pianists who distort the music such as Vladimir Horowitz and Evgeny Kissin. I do wish, however, that he had leaned into the fortissimos in the first movement of the “Pathétique” sonata. If you look at the score, it is obvious that Beethoven wanted very strong contrasts between these fortissimi and the pianissimi that immediately follow them. Gulda comes close, but does not provide the kind of heart-stopping excitement in this sonata that one heard from Schnabel, Fischer and Korstick especially, yet everything, as I say, is well phrased and intelligently presented, even the slow movements where his light but deep-in-the-keys touch provide some beautiful moments. In these respects, his playing reminded me a lot of Claude Frank, who played the sonatas in a similar manner. His only really disappointing moment comes in the slow introduction to the “Les Adieux” sonata.
On the other hand, I really liked his Bach because it was crisp, clean, and no-nonsense, and as it turns out his Couperin was equally fine, played with a surprising swagger. Surprisingly, he played with some atmosphere in the Schubert Impromptu, and of course his own Prelude and Fugue is marvelous. Mozart was a special composer for Gulda, and he was one of the very few who could play his music with both charm and energy at the same time, thus his performances of these two sonatas are very fine ones. Gulda “leans in” to the unusual chord changes when they occur to give the music greater interest, which is certainly helpful—listen, particularly, to the opening of the Sonata No. 14 in C minor, with its almost Beethoven-like forte. I’ve heard several pianists play Mozart sonatas—Walter Klien, Alicia de Larrocha, Glenn Gould, Wilhelm Kempff, Murray Perahia and Ronald Brautigam among them—and Gulda is clearly the best at making the music sound gutsy and interesting.
The penultimate Beethoven sonata, No. 31, is actually interpreted pretty well; Gulda seems to have understood the depth of the music and responded accordingly. As with his Couperin, Gulda gave Handel a little swagger in his E-minor Suite, which made the music sound more lively and interesting. Jumping back to Beethoven, he just didn’t get the joke that the composer wrote into the first movement of Sonata No. 16, where the player’s two hands are supposed to sound “out of synch.” His playing is SO precise that the rhythms sound even instead of uneven, which was the point. Yet he does a pretty nice job on the “Tempest” sonata, although a little less atmospheric in the quiet opening than I generally like, and the last movement was too metronomic for my taste. Best of all in this group is his version of the famed “Eroica” variations, which has more muscle and reveals the underlying structure better than many other performances I’ve heard. It’s absolutely amazing what Beethoven got out of this simple and rather paltry theme!
Gulda played Schubert the way he played Mozart and Beethoven—straightforward with a good amount of energy and clean lines—thus his performance of the D. 845 sonata in A minor sounds less “Schubertian,” in the Viennese sense, than in others’ performances, but this, too, helps pull the structure together, which Schubert’s sonatas often need to have done. As Gulda once said in 1954, “Play every tone as if your life depended on it! Think about what you’re doing! Never give your fingers free rein – no matter whether it’s classical music or jazz!” At heart he, like Toscanini, was a classicist in the strictest sense of the word. They believed in Structure above all, and in a sense this is what sometimes inhibited Gulda’s ability to find opaque tones in formal music or to swing when he played jazz…but there were compensations in the emotion and clarity of his music-making. Not surprisingly, he brought the same aesthetics to bear on Debussy, which made his performances fascinating for their clarity if not always for their opaqueness—the same as with Toscanini’s Debussy. Among German pianists, I prefer the way Michael Korstick and Walter Gieseking played Debussy, although in his later recordings from the 1950s Gieseking, too, tended to lack opaqueness in his playing. Now, this doesn’t mean that Gulda never found the right tone for Debussy; his performance of “Feuilles mortes” from the Préludes has exactly the right feeling, as did Toscanini’s performances of “Nuages” from the Nocturnes or Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, but sometimes the textures are too “clean” to project the right mood. It’s all a matter of personal taste, however; yours may differ from mine; and Gulda’s Debussy performances certainly had their good points about them.
The 1969 performance of his own Prelude and Fugue is excellent and really swings; this was obviously a good day for him. The Mozart Rondo in D is superb, but although Shuffle is an interesting piece, the feeling of swing is a bit too stiff.
The last concert(s)—SWR Music had to use a tape of a slightly later performance by The Inner Circle for release because the second half of the Bach concert disappeared—features Gulda on the clavichord, suitably amplified so that the concert audience in this large hall could hear it. He found the instrument rewarding but difficult to play, telling his pupil Thomas Knapp that “Whoever can play the clavichord can also play the piano – but not the other way round.” The Bach is lively and energetic, as was everything he played. Gulda switched back to piano for the Mozart Fantasie in D minor, an unusual piece that he seldom programmed, and the same composer’s Sonata No. 18, a faster performance than his famous later recording for Deutsche Grammophon.
The Inner Circle was the name Gulda gave to his short-lived group which included Günther Rabl on bass and Ursula Anders on drums, recorder, percussion and occasional vocals. For this group Gulda went back to his amplified clavichord, but also added his playing on recorder and crumhorn in addition to vocalizing. A strange trio, indeed! The music sounds both free-form and chromatic in the beginning, with Rabl’s bass and Gulda’s clavichord making some strange sounds together, increasing in volume and intensity. By the 3:29 mark, Anders is providing moaning vocals in the background while Gulda and Rabl are exploring odd sonorities and playing some very strange atonal figures, which later coalesce for a brief while before breaking up again. As opposed to his rigidly logical approach to classical music, this free-form improvisation is just that: a series of unrelated phrases tossed out into the ether, hoping that some of them will stick together for a while and make a coherent statement, which they do for a couple of minute between the 9:30 and 11:52 mark before going off the deep end once again. And yet it’s fascinating to hear simply because he was such a good musician and, despite his willingness to jump off the musical cliff without a parachute, he knew the principles by which music should be made. It has often been said, not without good sense, that you have to know the rules before you can break them, and this is very much a complete break with the rules of musical structure. In this music, however, Gulda found a freedom for his spirit that had to be contained in order to play Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert.
In toto, this set may not be for you if you prefer your Mozart softer and mushier than Gulda liked to play him, likewise Schubert, and The Inner Circle piece will surely not appeal to the majority of listeners, but there are enough interesting performances here that you may wish to cherry-pick tracks to download from it. Gulda was certainly an exceptional musician, and one committed to his vision of music in both fields, which makes his performances worth hearing.
—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley
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