Gulda Plays Beethoven

Vienna’s Friedrich Gulda (1930-2000) was one of the last century’s greatest artists and most curious eccentrics.  Among other antics, he and his girlfriend once appeared on stage nude for a recital of Schumann songs.  Despite his stupendous talent, he claimed to have gotten bored with classical music later in his career and attempted to reinvent himself (with limited success) as a jazz artist.  While Andre Previn had great success as a jazz/popular pianist and arranger before returning to the classical world, Gulda never achieved the same kind of adulation he received as a concert pianist.  Fortunately, Gulda returned to the concert stage with his skills largely undiminished.

Gulda was identified most closely with the music of Mozart, Debussy, and especially Beethoven.  For many, he assumed the mantle of Schnabel’s heir apparent as the exponent of Beethoven par excellence.  He performed and three times recorded the cycle of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas, perhaps the pinnacle of the piano repertoire.  His first recording of the cycle in Vienna in 1953-54 for Austrian State Radio when he was still in his 20s is my favorite of all recordings of the cycle.  It was released in 2010 as a boxed set on the Orfeo label in excellent sound.

Gulda’s style emphasized clarity, precision, and at times percussiveness to emphasize the structure of the work.  He disliked overt emotionalism and used the pedal sparingly.  Like Glenn Gould, Gulda adopted an “objective approach,” letting the music speak for itself.  In no other performances I have heard have the harmonic and melodic structures of Beethoven’s sonatas been made so evident.  As an example, listen to Gulda’s performance of the Piano Sonata No. 21 C major op. 53, the “Waldstein,” a work that often suffers from the overt emotionalism of lesser pianists.

Gulda takes the first movement at a furious pace, but the virtuosity serves the ends of making the structure crystal clear.  The second movement is clear-eyed and unsentimental, and by the time of the concluding presto of the final movement the inevitability of the finale is inescapable.  It is simply a great performance, but one that is matched by almost all the other sonatas, even those that are of slight musical weight.

Throughout his career Beethoven composed variations, and Orfeo includes Gulda’s performances of the Fifteen Variations and Fugue in E flat major op. 35 (Eroica Variations) and 33 Variationen über einen Walzer von Diabelli in C major op. 120 (the Diabelli-Variationen) from the same period in Gulda’s career.  They are also superb performances.  Gulda favored the Bösendorfer piano, which in Gulda’s hands sounds especially rich and crystalline.

Friedrich Gulda: Beethoven Piano Sonatas
Recorded 1953, 1954, 1957 (mono)
Orfeo 9-CD Set

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