Gulda: The Mono Tapes
Eighteen years after his death at the age of 69, Friedrich Gulda remains something of an iconoclast. Following his victory at the Geneva Competition in 1946, he was considered, along with Badura-Skoda and Demus, one of a triumvirate of post-war Viennese pianists. Yet his refusal to conform to the expected norms of a classical career – his cultivation of jazz; his frequent performance of his own compositions; his unconventional concert programming, dress and venues – has hindered any facile critical assessment of his legacy.
Gulda first became interested in the clavichord in 1971 through the influence of Paul and Limpe Fuchs. Just two years later he was performing the entire Well-Tempered on clavichord. The recordings on this disc, however, date from 1978 79 and were made by Gulda himself on what the producer, Christoph Stickel, describes as ‘rudimentary recording technology … not professionally monitored’. The tapes themselves, owned by Gulda’s pupil Thomas Knapp, who also contributes an interesting background essay to the booklet, were in terrible shape and had to be converted from analogue to digital. This was done, we are assured, in the most conservative manner to preserve Gulda’s playing to the fullest extent possible. The first part of the recording, Preludes and Fugues Nos 5, 23 and 17 and the Chromatic Fantasy, were recorded on a Widmayer clavichord; the second, Preludes and Fugues Nos 10, 20, and 24 and the A minor English Suite, on a Neupert.
To whatever extent Gulda’s experience with the clavichord may have informed his piano-playing, he plays the clavichord like a pianist. I hear little to indicate that he was interested in the potential of the instrument per se or exploring its intrinsic sonorous capacities. Nor is there evidence of a nodding acquaintance with contemporary thinking about matters of tempo, articulation and dance-inspired character in Baroque music which, thanks to the historically informed performance movement, was in full flower at the time.
That said, there is a certain dazzling virtuosity in these performances. One must admire Gulda’s clarity of thought and sheer facility, despite his driven, metronomic tempos and his thick-skinned indifference to the shapes and contours of Bach’s musical gestures. My greatest surprise was that there’s nothing here of the freedom and improvisatory fire that one might have imagined Gulda would bring to Bach from his experience with jazz. It’s difficult to imagine listeners returning to these as they might to other beloved Bach interpretations but they are nevertheless sui generis, thoroughly considered and certainly provide food for thought.