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.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The playfully profound music of Friedrich Gulda

Gulda Plays Mozart & Gulda

Improvisation is a process, according to Mike Nichols, that “absorbs you, creates you, and saves you.” In a superb in-depth New Yorker article about Nichols, John Lahr digs into his concept of improvisation. A lesson Nichols the director learned from his improv work with Elaine May was this: "To damn well pick something that would happen in the scene—an Event." Nichols goes on:
While you’re expressing what happens, you’re also saying underneath, ‘Do we share this? Are you like me in any way? Oh, look, you are. You laughed!
That improv helped Nichols in his directing day-job is clear; it's also clear that it's a vital part of every classical musician's toolkit. This is about more than cadenzas and adding ornamentation in repeats; it's built in to the very DNA of both interpretation and composition. Mozart was a great improviser, as was Bach. The appreciation for Friedrich Gulda's genius, which has only grown since his death in 2000, is based to a large part on the unexpected places he takes us in the core repertoire of the piano. I recently listened straight through to the six CDs of his Complete Mozart Tapes, and was struck by how fresh and alive every single sonata sounded. Each movement was, in Nichols' sense, an Event.

This CD from BR Klassik, due to be released on June 2, 2017, comes from two live concerts. The first, from 2009, includes two Rondos for piano and orchestra swapped out by Mozart, for various reasons, from two of his Piano Concertos. In a feat that I'm sure Mike Nichols would have applauded, Mozart has taken some fairly pedestrian, even banal, themes, and spun them into a high level of entertainment, if not actual profundity. Gulda, with able assistance from Leopold Hager and the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, doesn't let down the side; he keeps the comedy moving, and he highlights the universal significance of the comic spirit. These two movements are a joy to listen to.

The second concert is actually a very special and famous one, and I'm quite surprised this portion of it has never been released before.  It's the first 40 minutes or so of The Meeting between Gulda and Chick Corea, from June 27, 1982. This is Gulda playing solo, mainly his own improvisations, with a fine, typically dynamic version of Mozart's K. 330 sonata providing a kind of centre of gravity to the proceedings. Gulda's pieces aren't jazz, precisely, though he's clearly at home in several jazz idioms. They're really more like post-modern pastiches, with lots of Mozart, bits of Bach and blues and full-blown Romantic passages, mixed with a very Viennese-sounding sense of satire and parody. They're an important part of Gulda's playfully profound music.

The duet portions of The Meeting are available both on CDDVD and YouTube. Here is Gulda's solo portion:

And here's Mike Nichols and Elaine May in a classic skit:

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