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Friedrich GULDA (1930-2000)
Concerto for cello and wind orchestra (1983) [29.54]
Sonata concertante for piano and orchestra ‘Concerto for myself’ (1988) [38.56]
Heinrich Schiff (cello)
Munich Philharmonic Orchestra/Friedrich Gulda (piano)
rec. Münchner Klaviersommer, 1988
ARTHAUS MUSIK 101675 DVD [76.00]

This DVD contains what appear to be two separate broadcasts of concerts from the ‘Munich Piano Summer’ of 1988. Confusion is caused by the fact that we are several times informed that the performance of Concerto for myself is of the world première, while the booklet note by Marcus Woelfle tells us that the work was first given in Vienna in the same year. I presume the latter statement is a simple error, although it is repeated in all three languages in which the note is given. The composer’s webpage does not clarify the matter, and his publisher’s site gives no details either.
 
Friedrich Gulda in his later years had a reputation as a cantankerous eccentric, and it has to be admitted that his appearance in both these concerts, with massive round tinted glasses and a crochet skullcap that looks like a tea cosy, do nothing to dispel that impression. Gulda, mind you, had a very high opinion of himself. In a letter to the German critic Franz Endler, he stated: “I am the most important creative Viennese musician of the second half of our century. This is because I have composed valid works that lead our music out of the blind alley of twelve-tonery and of other, unworldly, anti-musical and anti-human practitioners and give it back to the relaxed affection and love of the public.” Well, it is a worthy aim – although one may take leave to doubt how any composer who has composed so few works of substance - three concertos in the 1980s - can be regarded as that important. Never mind: if he didn’t think his compositions were worthwhile, he presumably wouldn’t have written them. He even went to the extent of apparently allowing his death to be announced prematurely, so that he could read the published obituaries – now there’s confidence for you.
 
The opening of the Cello Concerto, with its jazzy rhythms and contrasting lyrical passages, and the soloist accompanied by a noisy jazz drum-kit, sounds very similar in style to another work for similar forces written at around the same time, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Variations. Heinrich Schiff throws himself manfully into his task, although one gets the distinct impression that he only manages to make himself audible above the brass accompaniment by virtue of discreet amplification. There is even some echo in places which sounds as though it may have been electronically added. Although the concerto is described as being for “wind orchestra” there is also a guitar, a string bass and percussion (including drum-kit) with prominent parts throughout. The guitar is only audible during the quieter passages such as the beautiful second-movement Idylle which lies at the core of the work and leads to a fiendishly difficult cadenza before the march-like finale. This performance may well have been the final one that Schiff gave of the work which he had commissioned. In 1988 he was proposing to perform the concerto at the Salzburg Festival, but dropped it at the request of the Festival managers in favour of a Haydn concerto. Gulda reacted badly, complaining that “he never made the slightest effort to champion the work that I wrote for him and that he and I made into a success.” That said, his championship of the work is not at all in doubt here, and his playing throughout simply sizzles. The music blends jazz and folk elements, but Gulda denied any sense of irony in his employment of these popular idioms. However the sheer vulgarity of the final march, which became positively Sousa-like at times, is surely meant to cause laughter – and indeed the audience supplies this.
 
The “sonata concertante for piano and orchestra” subtitled Concerto for myself is very much in the same easy-going vein, immediately approachable and enjoyable. Critics at the time of the première characterised the work as a “declaration of love to classical music” but I would say that the jazz elements are much more noticeable, with the ubiquitous drum-kit much in evidence. Indeed there are passages throughout the concerto which remind one of the classically-inspired improvisations of Jacques Loussier. The slow middle movement, with its poignant oboe solo at the beginning of the end, reminds one of similar sections in the Ravel two-handed concerto or the Shostakovich Second Concerto. The middle section is much more upbeat; and it leads into a cadenza which makes thorough-going use of all the expanded techniques of the avant-garde: crashing forearm clusters as well as plentiful excavations inside the lid of the piano. Although this section is described as a “free cadenza” Gulda can be seen in places looking anxiously at an open score tucked inside the piano. His use of avant-garderie is carefully enfolded in a controlled atmosphere of improvisation which is not only effective but haunting. After that the finale is an upbeat Latin-American romp. The booklet lists an “encore” but this simply consists of a repetition of the closing bars of the concerto, during which Gulda distractingly prances round the stage jigging like an ageing rock star – not the most enticing of images.
 
Indeed Gulda as a conductor does not seem to get the best out of the orchestra in either of the concertos. He indulges himself in platform antics which would make Bernstein blush — along with occasional vocal exhortations. Although the orchestra indulge him – the oboe soloist in the slow movement of Concerto for myself really deserves a separate credit – they don’t seem over-enthused either. The small body of strings in the piano work sound seriously under-powered, but this may be the result of the recording balance which also diminishes the sound of some delicate percussion effects to near-inaudibility. The booklet notes contend that the Concerto for myself is “too closely associated with the artist Gulda himself to be performed by any other musician”. Even so, one would like to hear the work with a different pianist and an independent conductor who could get more sheer body out of the strings. There are several alternative recordings, with different soloists, of the Cello Concerto, but none of the piano work.
 
Gulda waged a perpetual war with critics, describing them as “classical music idiots” and “arseholes”, but he insisted to the end of his life that it was “necessary to give people something they could feel truly comfortable with”. He certainly succeeded with these two works, and the audience applaud rapturously at every break in the music in the best pop-concert manner.
 
Paul Corfield Godfrey
 






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