Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Gulda Plays Bach on Clavichord

A little over a year ago I wrote enthusiastically about the release of a recording by Austrian pianist Friedrich Gulda. The recording included a concert performance of a sonata by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (K. 330 in C major) at which Gulda decided to both precede and follow the selection with his own jazz improvisations. (This was the first half of a concert program, whose second half consisted entirely of Gulda jamming with Chick Corea.)

The thoroughness of his eclecticism would probably have been enough to justify the claim that Gulda was the most interesting pianist during the second half of the twentieth century. However, the prodigious approach he took to establishing his classical chops would almost have been enough to warrant that distinction. His discography includes both books of Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, the complete piano sonatas of both Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven (as well as the latter composer’s five cello sonatas, which he recorded with Pierre Fournier), and Claude Debussy’s 24 piano preludes. When he died on January 27, 2000 at the age of 69, the world lost a musician whose grasp of the immediacy of performance experiences could not be equalled.

At the middle of last month, Berlin Classics released an album through which we can appreciate that immediacy in a highly personal context. All of the tracks come from personal recordings that Gulda made with his own tape equipment. As might be guessed, this was not optimal source material. The booklet notes by Producer Christoph Stickel described the tapes as being “in a deplorable state.” The recordings were made in 1978 and 1979; and at least some of them seem to have been made before a concert audience, as can be assumed on the basis of the applause included on the tracks. All of the recordings are monophonic.

The resulting album is devoted entirely to music by Bach: six prelude-fugue pairs from the second book of The Well-Tempered Clavier, the BWV 903 “chromatic” fantasy and fugue in D minor, and the BWV 807 (second) “English” suite in A minor. What makes these recordings distinctive (and justifies Stickel’s Herculean efforts to remaster their content) is that all of these selections are played on a clavichord. Sadly, this instrument is probably best known for showing up in mistranslations of Das wohltemperierte Klavier as “the well-tempered clavichord;” but it may well be the most interesting member of the keyboard family.

Ironically, the most important attribute of the clavichord is that it is barely audible. It was never intended as a concert instrument. In Bach’s day it would have been used for practice in settings where living quarters were modest; and it was probably used as a “working instrument” by composers. Thus, both students and composers could go about their business without bothering anyone in their immediate vicinity.

It was probably also the first instrument in which the strings were struck, rather than plucked. Each key struck only a single string with a small metal blade called a tangent. There was no “action;” so every movement of the key corresponded directly to a movement of the tangent. The most important consequence of this design was that the performer could achieve a vibrato effect by vibrating the key itself.

Clavichord build by Keith Hill in 1977 (photographer unknown, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

It is reasonable to assume that any performance that Gulda gave before an audience would have had to require amplification. However, through that amplification, one could appreciate that he could take more gradual approaches to changes in dynamic level than a harpsichord would have allowed; and he could embellish any single note with a vibrato impossible to achieve with any other keyboard instrument. As a result, every selection on this new CD is given a truly “ear-opening” account. I would even go so far as to suggest that, while the spontaneity that Gulda brought to these performances was entirely consistent with his jazz background, the very sound of his instrument often borders on the sonorities of a rock guitar, whose amplification equipment can transform the sonorities as well as the dynamic level. For that matter, when I listen to Trey Gunn’s stick performance of the fantasy section of BWV 903, a “regular” offering at concerts given by the Robert Fripp String Quintet during the Nineties, I have to wonder whether Gunn had been exposed to what Gulda could do with a clavichord.

This is definitely a recording for those who think that they have “heard it all” where performances of Bach are concerned.

No comments: