Friedrich Gulda’s Lost Symphony

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GULDA: Symphony in G / Radio-Orchester Stuttgart; Südfunk-Tanzorchester; Friedrich Gulda, cond / Entrée. Variations. Play Piano Play: No. 4. Prelude and Fugue. PAUER: Meditationen: No. 2, Étude / Friedrich Gulda, pno (live: Heidelberg, June 6, 1971) / SWR Music SWR19096CD

From the publicity blurb for this album:

Gulda’s “Symphony in G“, presented on this album, was discovered in the SWR archive in the course of research for the release of all the recordings the Austrian pianist made for the German Southwest Broadcasting Corporation (SWR). Until now nobody actually knew that this work existed for there are no indications of Gulda being commissioned or of a specific occasion for which he might have composed this symphony. Therefore, one listens here to the world première of a piece which – apart from being recorded in the studio on 20 November 1970 – has never been performed in public.

But since recording sessions cost money—particularly when using a full orchestra—who paid for this project since it was apparently never released and fell into a black hole? Probably Gulda himself.

This is clearly a third stream piece; one might say in the tradition of Gunther Schuller, except that it is far more exciting, jazzy and innovative than anything Schuller ever wrote. Schuller’s own third stream pieces tended to be over-classicized, very complex and not usually swinging. This symphony swings right out of the gate, with the two orchestras swinging like a super big band right away. After the dramatic introduction, things quiet down a bit but the music is no less swinging, albeit in a more subtle manner. This almost sounds like the kind of thing that Stan Kenton’s Neophonic Orchestra was doing in the 1960s except with a full string section (which Kenton had used earlier, but dropped by the mid-‘60s). In the first movement there is also a surprisingly lovely, almost French-sounding passage for winds and brass in 6/8 time which increases in volume, then recedes again. The rhythm section comes to the fore in the next section. For its time and place, it is an amazingly original and creative work, a far better synthesis of jazz and classical elements than even Rolf Liebermann’s Concerto for Jazz Band and Orchestra recorded back in the 1950s by the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony for RCA. There’s a nice cool jazz solo played on alto sax that channels Lee Konitz, except that the fast passages aren’t quite as fluid, followed by a fine baritone sax solo. Both are played with soft muted trumpets in the background. When the tenor sax enters, however, the bass suddenly becomes more prominent and there are interjections by a trumpet and a trombone behind it as the whole thing builds to a climax.

Despite all the busyness of this music, however, it is surprisingly well developed along traditional likes. Gulda always felt that jazz swing and improvisation were important but also stressed the “superiority” of Western classical form over the usual jazz compositions. Of course, there were Americans who had their own take on this synthesis of jazz and classical form, such as Eddie Sauter and Clare Fischer who had a solid classical background before going into jazz. Gulda, by contrast with the Americans, worked long and hard to hone his jazz chops to the point where they would be taken seriously by American jazz musicians, though I think it is fair to say that he never quite swung with the ease of such European jazz musicians as organist Barbara Dennerlein, with whom he played a few concerts.

The real surprise comes in the second (slow) movement, which sounds conventionally classical, pitting written oboe and French horn solos against a soft cushion of strings in a style that almost sounds Mozartean. This makes sense since Mozart was the classical composer closest to Gulda’s heart; but suddenly we hear a guitar solo against a rhythmic figure played by the strings, and we know we are not in Mozartean territory. Then comes a brief bass solo, following which we hear the saxes play a figure followed by a wah-wah trombone solo with rhythmic guitar figures and drums underneath. A bit of a rock beat comes in behind the plunger-muted trumpet solo, and the band plays hot, feverish figures behind it. Then back to the classical elegance of Mozart for the rest of the movement!

Curiously, the third and final movement also begins slowly, with a slow, moody Adagio for the strings, including a written cadenza for solo violin, but after a brief pause the big band comes crashing in, the tempo increases, and we’re off to the races. Most of this “Allegro assai” section is scored, not improvised, but it swings mightily. There are some dazzling fast figures played by the saxes as well as by the strings as the music hurtles towards its conclusion. There are, however, improvised electric guitar and drum solos along the way.

So why was it never performed? Perhaps, after hearing the tapes, Gulda was dissatisfied with it but didn’t feel it was worth revising because there were precious few big jazz bands and classical orchestras in Germany at the time capable of playing it well. But I’m very glad we have it now.

In the piano recital excerpts recorded live in June 1971, Gulda is at his swinging best, particularly in the opener, his own Entrée, an uptempo piece with a more relaxed bridge in the middle. This is followed by the Étude of Fritz Pauer, a friend of his who won a jazz prize in 1966 and with whom he worked from time to time. This Étude is a rapid moto perpetuo piece that eventually comes to resemble a boogie-woogie piece, with Gulda improvising above the constant G-flat vamp.

Following this are Gulda’s own Variations, lasting 11 ½ minutes and built around a nice little syncopated figure played in the left hand. By the 7:54 mark he gets very complex indeed, but has to forego playing with swing in order to manipulate those incredible double-time figures. After this, he plays the delightful little “Allegro ma non troppo” from this equally delightful suite, Play Piano Play, then closes out with his own Prelude and Fugue. Gulda’s performances of these pieces swing a lot more than that of those classical pianists who tend to record them.

This is a superb album, but notable particularly for the Symphony. This is a gem that needs to be played in orchestral concerts when they resume, but somehow I doubt it will ever be programmed. Half of classical musicians still look down their noses at jazz while most of the other half simply can’t play it.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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