Great Performers: Friedrich Gulda
Beethoven and Bebop. Debussy and The Doors. Mozart and Techno. Strange, even improbable, bedfellows – yet Friedrich Gulda managed to connect the dots and bring these disparate worlds together, to the delight of some and the disdain of others.Read more…
Born in Vienna on 16 May 1930, Gulda entered the Vienna Academy at age twelve, attracted attention in his early teens as both pianist and composer, and, in 1946, won first prize at the International Geneva Piano Competition. Extensive European and South American tours followed, along with his first recordings for Decca.
On 11 October 1950, Gulda made his New York debut at Carnegie Hall and while in the city had his first impressions of live jazz at a major nightclub when he visited Birdland – the experience was life changing. He launched a parallel career as a jazz composer, arranger and improvising pianist. Gulda's jazz activities increased in the 1960s and '70s, embracing both large-scale compositions and extended forays into free improvisation. He also embraced rock by way of his 'Variationen über "Light My Fire" (von Jim Morrison)'. In the 1990s, Gulda's programming concepts grew more extreme, from combining Mozart with DJ culture to staging his own death in 1999, only to "resurrect" in concert a few days later. Ultimately Gulda did die shortly thereafter, on 27 January 2000, a date that happened to be Mozart's birthday.
Indeed, Gulda never strayed far from his classical roots, even if he couldn't resist turning tradition upside down. Special lighting and microphone setups accompanied a 1979 Mozart recital where he verbally insulted the audience. Playing Bach on the clavichord, Gulda amplified the instrument to project way beyond its intimately scaled timbral parameters. On record his interpretations similarly confound convention as much as they shed fresh light on familiar scores. His straightforward, refreshingly unsentimental Chopin Preludes are a case in point. So are his terse, energetic Mozart Sonatas and late 1960s Beethoven cycle, plus both books of Bach's 'Well-Tempered Clavier', where the close-up microphone placement imparts an analytical clarity reminiscent of Glenn Gould's esthetically similar approach.
And like Gould, Gulda wholeheartedly embraced Richard Strauss's youth 'Burleske' for Piano and Orchestra at a time when the piece occupied the repertoire's fringes. In the spirit of period performance, Gulda spins the slow movement melody of Mozart's Piano Concerto K. 467 very freely over a steady accompaniment, to provocative effect. And when Gulda's early 1950s Debussy and Ravel recordings for Decca were reissued after many decades, they took piano mavens by surprise. Who knew that Gulda had set down some of the catalogue's most idiomatic, atmospheric and ravishingly nuanced traversals of the Debussy Preludes and Ravel's 'Gaspard de la nuit'?
However history judges Gulda's career as a whole, his complete musicianship and disrespect for complacency continue to reverberate and make waves.