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SWR’s triple album of Friedrich Gulda in performances dating from 1959-1962 captures a rare musical candour. In concertos by Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn – with Richard Strauss’s Burlesque and Debussy’s Feux d’artifice as scintillating encores – we hear a pianist whose playing far transcends external considerations and a reputation for eccentricity.

Gulda’s shuttle between New York’s Carnegie Hall and the Birdland nightclub provoked both conservatives and jazz lovers. For conservatives, his seemingly extramural activities were a form of exhibitionism, while for jazz enthusiasts his crossover creations were neither one thing nor the other. Happy to state that ‘classical music is dead, long live jazz’, Gulda saw the latter as a vivid and blessed release from ‘the pale, academic approach I had been taught’. His onstage appearance caused outrage ( for one writer he looked like ‘a Serbian pimp’) and his ‘resurrection’ recital after he had announced his death was the final straw.

Yet such diversionary tactics veiled the true inner nature of Gulda’s artistry. From the start of his career, when he won the Geneva Competition in 1946, he was greatly admired by Alfred Brendel, Nelson Friere and Martha Argerich (Brendel was lost in wonder at Gulda’s performance of Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, admitting he could never equal such a natural command). Indeed, the proof of such admiration is gloriously manifest in the present album. In Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto, Gulda joins those pianists who, in Charles Rosen’s words, ‘appear to do nothing and end by achieving everything’. It is difficult to imagine a more serene and tonally translucent reply to the orchestra’s gruffness in the central Andante.

Such playing might easily be characterised as sober or sub-fusc were it not for a constant sense of underlying nuance, and in Mozart a no less constant awareness of the light and shade at the heart of the composer’s genius. Gulda may have commented that ‘Bach expresses in three words what others take pages to achieve,’ yet his performance of Strauss’s Burlesque reveals him as a Romantic virtuoso to the manner born. What other pianist could be such a coaxing, insinuating charmer in that all-Viennese second subject? Debussy’s Feux d’artifice is rendered with an imaginative vitality far beyond conventional French wisdom: pinwheels, rockets and Bengal lights spin, soar and blaze in all directions.

Gulda was no more ‘deadeye Fred’ than Van Cliburn was ‘Horowitz and Liberace rolled into one’ (Time Magazine). He was an incomparable artist, and I for one will return regularly to these recordings for the ultimate in musical calibre.

BRYCE MORRISON Read the full review on Agora Classica


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