Friday, 4 November 2016

Review 9: Friedrich Gulda's (Second) Beethoven Cycle

Gulda does it again!, Review of Friedrich Gulda's recording of Beethoven's piano sonatas.

Friedrich Gulda's recording of the so-called Old Testament of classical keyboard in the shape of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier almost instantly became my definitive interpretation of the preludes and fugues contained therein, short of recording them all myself. 

Having never until now found a satisfactory Beethoven piano cycle I naturally looked to Gulda's recording, despite it not being available for digital download, once I was made aware of its existence - which was no mean feat. 

To be succinct I will say that just as Gulda mesmerised me with his Old Testament rendering so his performance of the New Testament in the shape of Beethoven's piano sonatas is now my go-to favourite. 

I have explored interpretations of these sonatas for many years, owning the cycles by Artur Schnabel, Wilhelm Kempff (mono and stereo), Maurizio Pollini, Richard Goode, Alfred Brendel (second cycle) as well as odd sonatas played by Glenn Gould and Rudolf Serkin.

None of the above was I truly happy with for the reason that many of the lesser known sonatas made me feel bored and I was often in disagreement with the way the greater sonatas were played. 

Moreover, the quality over the entire cycle either wavered (Pollini and Goode) or failed to captivate (Brendel and Kempff) and listening to the whole corpus was, in the case of these aforementioned interpreters, more of a chore than a pleasure (the sound quality of the Schnabel is too poor for me to have explored his take in any depth). 

Not anymore. Gulda's fiery, immediate, un-belaboured, non-deferential, un-romantic, quick-witted approach to these piano monuments has made them all a pleasure to listen to, almost without exception, and his performance of the named sonatas is also much to my liking, e.g. the first movement of the Waldstein. 

Gulda was called a 'terrorist pianist' for a reason in so far as he was keyboard maverick with little time for the ostentation and preciousness (not to say pretentiousness) of the classical music world, openly preferring jazz in some cases and having the decency to also compose which is not the case of many pianists schooled in the classical tradition. 

In my opinion these elements of his pianistic temperament are perfect for Beethoven, a keen improviser himself with little time for common public perception, and, unlike the ponderous Kempff or the uneven Goode, Gulda makes these works exciting and arguably as fresh as when they were first conceived - quite an achievement given how familiar I am with all of them. 

Now I am aware that this is a matter of taste as I doubt Gulda will be to everyone's liking but it is a joy in my case to finally find a pianist who corresponds largely with my musical sensibility and has managed to deliver the goods in the case of giants Bach and Beethoven (his Mozart is certainly not one I'm very fond of, however). 

I have not taken the trouble to listen to the concertos included in this box set as they were not the reason I purchased it but rest assured that the piano solo works covering the first nine discs are brilliantly done justice, if of a vigorous and un-reverential kind.