Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Two Sides of Gulda on a Single Album

At the beginning of this month, BR-KLASSIK, the “house label” for Bayerischer Rundfunk (Bavarian Broadcasting), released an album entitled Gulda plays Mozart & Gulda. “Gulda” is the Austrian pianist Friedrich Gulda, who died at the age of 69 on January 27, 2000. As was previously observed, in 1959 he had worked with the cellist Pierre Fournier (who was about 25 years older than he was) to record all of the pieces that Ludwig van Beethoven had composed for piano and cello. He then went on to record Beethoven’s complete piano sonatas, and those were released in the United States by the Musical Heritage Society. However, at the time of his sessions with Fournier, Gulda had established a strong reputation as a jazz pianist with adventurous tastes in free improvisation.

On June 27, 1982 Gulda packaged his two interests into a single program. The best known part of that program was the second half, which consisted entirely of extended duo improvisations performed with jazz pianist Chick Corea. Less well known was the first half of that program, in which Gulda framed a performance of one of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s piano sonatas, K. 330 in C major, with two jazz improvisations played both before and after the sonata. While the session with Corea was released as the album The Meeting, this “Mozart experiment” remained in the vaults until the beginning of this month.

That music occupies the center of the track listing for Gulda plays Mozart & Gulda. The second improvisation is then followed by single-movement excerpts from two of Gulda’s own compositions, the suites Play Piano Play and Suite for Piano, E-Piano and Drums. That entire sequence is then framed by two concertante selections at the beginning and conclusion of the album. The first track is Mozart’s K. 386 rondo for piano and orchestra in A major, in the reconstruction by Alfred Einstein. The conclusion is the K. 382 rondo in D major. On both of these recordings Gulda is playing with the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks (Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra) conducted by Leopold Hager.

While roughly two-thirds of this CD are devoted to Mozart, there is a good chance that the jazz lovers will be the ones most interested in the album, even if the number of tracks are limited. There is a long history of jazz musicians, particularly pianists, drawing upon favorites from the classical repertoire as a point of departure for both compositions and improvisations. On this album those connections are much more subtle, but they still offer insights into Gulda’s ability to work productively in both worlds. Where other performers have encountered conflict between them, Gulda seems to have found a “sweet spot” of symbiosis.

Nevertheless, we need to be realistic about the fact that this recording may not be a representative sample of Gulda’s work. Certainly, where Mozart is concerned, we can hypothesize that he was at his most adventurous when playing cadenzas for his own piano concertos. Fortunately, there is a relatively generous collection of Gulda playing these concertos with a variety of different conductors, some of whom have more liberal ideas about those cadenzas than others. Where the improvisations on Gulda plays Mozart & Gulda are concerned, the question as to how “free” they are remains an open one. Even so, there are probably a fair number of listeners who can appreciate the jazzier qualities of some of Mozart’s concerto cadenzas; and they are likely to find Gulda’s free improvisations just as absorbing.

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