Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

The Birth of the Cool, Mozart Division

So who's the coolest performer ever? Sinatra, in about 1953 with Nelson Riddle? How about Miles Davis in 1959, or better yet Bill Evans in the early 1960s?

I vote for Friedrich Gulda in 1981, the time this concert film was made, at the Amerikahaus in Munich. Experience the coolness in this superb Blu-ray disc from Arthaus, Mozart for the People. He was perhaps already something of a cult performer, but he's hardly playing to the crowd. Rather, he seems bemused by the whole concert experience. He's wearing a dark blue shirt/sweater just like the ones I bought at Costco, except I wouldn't tuck in mine like he does, especially if I wore my trousers pulled up as high as he does. I can't imagine anything more nerd-awkward than Gulda's aimless wandering about the stage between sonatas. He seems unaware that there's an audience; you can almost hear the gears in his head turning as he plans his strategy of attack for the great F major sonata, K. 332. Everything - everything - is focused on the playing, on Mozart. He has a direct pipeline to Mozart the way another eccentric pianist I love, Glenn Gould, has to Bach.

This film has been criticized for the odd camera angles chosen by video director Janos Darvas, but his camera moves and switches have the cumulative effect of immersion in the concert experience. In the great Fantasia in C minor K. 475 there's an extraordinary sequence that begins about an hour and six minutes into the film. Darvas watches Gulda's face carefully as Mozart gets really dramatic. There's no hint of tension there, no drama in the face. It's all in his fingers, in the music. Then Darvas moves to watch over Gulda's left shoulder. The pianist leans over to the right, into the light, then left back into the shadows. Then (about 1:07) Darvas begins a slow zoom into a close-up, as Gulda builds to a climax in the music.  As he moves in to a profile view of Gulda's face, the pianist again moves into the light, and you see his expression: complete concentration, but now there's wonder there. And at 1:08:00, it's a halo of light, and complete enlightenment. All this, I'm sure, without any theatricality, or even knowledge on the part of Gulda about what was happening on the screen. Some credit should go to the director and his camera operators, for sure.

Gulda, like so many pianists, was always a perfectionist, and he was loathe to sign off on his recording going to the record presses. I love his look of absolute glee after he finishes K. 332. He knows he nailed it, and tells the audience so.

Gulda's encore piece is outstanding. It's his own paraphrase of Sarastro's aria "In diesen heil'gen Hallen" from The Magic Flute. This is a deeply moving performance of a beautiful piece, and considering that Mozart's operas are a primary door into Gulda's sonata interpretations, a fitting end to this marvellous concert.

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