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Friedrich Gulda (piano)
Two Solo Recitals
rec. live, 29 January 1959, Bruchsal; 3 June 1959, Schwetzingen, Germany
SWR MUSIC SWR19098CD [3 CDs: 158:15]

This 3CD set includes two recitals Friedrich Gulda performed in Germany in 1959. The first took place in Bruchsal on 29 January and the second was given in Schwetzingen on 3 June. Three years prior to these two recitals, the pianist had taken New York's Birdland by storm. Some considered his preoccupation with jazz would have adverse consequences on his "legendary touch". What happened was quite the reverse, with his jazz playing broadening his sound, which in turn greatly benefitted his Debussy and Ravel playing. I note that the Schwetzingen recital has been previously issued.

Bach pays tribute to his elder brother Johann Jakob on his departure to assume a post at Sweden’s royal court in his six movement Capriccio sopra la lontananza del fratello dilettissimo. Gulda’s approach to the work’s narrative highlights to perfection lament, melancholy, humour, and nobility in the final fugue.

The fact that we hear the repeats in Haydn's F minor Variations is a plus. This wonderful work is a set of alternating minor–major variations, and the pianist makes much of the alternating contrasts in mood, underscoring the harmonic subtleties and forays into distant keys. The coda is particularly impressive, where the persistent dotted rhythms and swirling arpeggios convey a disturbing quality. The Sonata in E flat major Hob XVI:52 is Haydn’s noblest and most spacious piano sonata. The opening movement is both confident and life-affirming; a pity the exposition isn’t repeated. In the central Adagio Gulda works wonders contouring the rich ornamentation. The finale is a true Presto, brilliantly dispatched.

The “the master of all masters” was how the pianist regarded Mozart, and he returned to the composer often in his concerts and recordings. The Piano Sonata in B flat major, K333 was a particular favorite. Tempo choices for all three movements seem just right and the performance is distinguished for its rhythmical precision and crystalline finger work. The slow movement is eloquent and lyrically savoured, whilst the finale benefits from a sunny, smiling buoyancy.

Piano Sonatas by Beethoven form a substantial part of the set. The small-scaled G major Sonata, Op. 14 No. 2 is graced with an intimate reading. Gulda effortlessly surfs the lyricism of the opening movement, and tiptoes through the childlike march theme of the variations of the second. The third delights for its puckish wit and humour. In The Tempest, Op. 31 No. 2, Gulda generates some ecstasy and thrill in the fast sections of the first movement. The Adagio has a refined sincerity, and the finale conjures up the image of a horse galloping past a window. The pianist’s unique affection for Op. 110 is borne out in the masterful performance from Scwetzingen in June 1959. It’s an intensely spiritual utterance, otherworldly and with a tangible feeling of integrity and humanity.

Gulda greatly admired Debussy, and his performances of the composer’s music is some of the best on record. There’s no doubting that his rhythmic looseness and flexibility was a product of his involvement with jazz. The music in the selection is ignited and comes alive with the poetry and magic he brings. The evocative Reflets dans l'eau from Images Book 1 is painted with haunting shades, with the arpeggios limpid and fluid. La soirée dans Grenade has a hazy, dream-like quality. Colour, nuance and panache are a feature of the performance of L’Isle Joyeuse, and no one will fail to be dazzled and won over by the coruscating climax. The pianist is no less convincing in Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit. Ondine emerges liquid and sensuous whilst, centre stage, Le Gibet is sombre, static and unforgiving. Scarbo, the malevolent and sinister goblin, is an impressionistic tour-de-force.

These digital remasterings from the original SWR tapes are in very decent sound, consistent in both venues. Although the recitals are live, I didn’t detect any audience presence. The liner notes, in German and English, set the scene admirably. This is surely a must-have for those, like myself, who admire Gulda’s artistry.

Stephen Greenbank

CD 1 [43:42]
Recital in the Castle of Bruchsal, 29.01.1959

Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756–1791)
Piano Sonata No.13 in B flat Major [20:13]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770–1827)
Piano Sonata No.17 D Minor Op.31,2 Der Sturm [23:16]

CD 2 [39:32]
Recital in Bruchsal Castle, 29.01.1959 (continuation)

Claude DEBUSSY (1862–1918)
Reflets dans l’eau (from Book I Images L 110 No.1 [5:22]
La soirée dans Grenade (from Estampes L 100: No. 2) [4:42]
L’isle joyeuse L 106 [5:07]
Maurice RAVEL (1875–1937)
Gaspard de la nuit [22:00]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN
Ecossaise E flat Major WoO 83 No. 1 (Encore) [1:59]

CD 3 [75:01]
Recital in the Castle of Schwetzingen, 03.06.1959

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685–1750)
Capriccio sopra la lontananza del suo fratello dilettissimo BWV 992 [9:18]
Joseph HAYDN (1732–1809)
Andante con variazioni F minor Hob. XVII:6 [14:25]
Piano Sonata No. 62 E flat Major Hob. XVI:52 [16:56]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN
Piano Sonata No.10 G Major Op.14, No.2 [13:50]
Piano Sonata No.31 A flat Major Op.110 [20:04]

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