Friedrich Gulda

Friedrich Gulda plays Bach, Haydn & Beethoven

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This recital was recorded in 1959, when Viennese pianist Friedrich Gulda was 29. It comes from the period before his extreme experimental phase (during which, among other innovations, he faked his own death), but the playing is characteristically his, and as always with Gulda there are things that seem unsuccessful or even outrageous but an overall totally compelling quality that makes you accept and even welcome the flaws. Start with the sound. It's not clear what kind of editing was applied by the engineers from the Hänssler label and Southwest German Radio (there is very little crowd noise), but for a live recording from 1959 the clarity and depth are impressive indeed. The album sets a new standard for historical reissues of performances from this period. The program opens with Bach's Capriccio über die Abreise seines innig geliebten Bruders, BWV 992 (Capriccio on the Departure of His Deeply Beloved Brother), a curiously humorous early work thought to have been composed when the composer's older brother Johann Jacob departed for military service in Sweden. The elegant and detailed notes by Peter Cossé, given in German and English, accurately situate Gulda's Bach playing in between the old Romantic piano styles and the "explosive laboratory experiments" of Glenn Gould, who had stirred things up in Europe as well as North America. One can hear the influence of Gould in this performance, but Gulda's immersion in the quirky spirit of the piece is unique. The Haydn Andante con variazoni in F minor, Hob. 17/6, and Piano Sonata in E flat major, Hob. 16/52, are the weak points here, with half-hearted attempts to run counter to the carefully placed accents that give the music its humor. As Cossé points out, in 1959 Haydn's keyboard output was considered minor, and perhaps Gulda was simply mirroring the age. The two Beethoven sonatas, however, are fascinating. The real free-spirited Gulda comes through in the Piano Sonata No. 10 in G major, Op. 14/2, where he puts this seemingly light-hearted work through a sequence of dark shadings and rubato that in lesser hands would reduce it to incoherence but here strangely hold together and make you want to go back and listen again. The Piano Sonata No. 31 in A flat major, Op. 110, is a more conventional performance, broad, reaching, and beautifully executed. A must for Gulda fans and audio enthusiasts, and a reasonable introduction to one of the 20th century's most unusual musicians.

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