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Classical Iconoclast Turned To jazzCopyright © 2000The Scotsman, 2000
Friedrich Gulda played both classical music and improvised jazz with equal relish, and always insisted that both should be given equal weight as part of his overall musical identity.
His early reputation placed him firmly in the classic line of German pianists, but by the early 1950s he was showing signs of deviating from that path. He began sitting in with jazz bands in informal settings while on tour as a classical soloist, and eventually made his American jazz debut at Birdand in New York, and performed at the Newport Jazz Festival. He went on to form and lead several jazz ensembles of various sizes over the years, including a big band, the Eurojazz Orchestra, and played and recorded with major jazz names, notably a disc of improvised piano duets with Chick Corea.
Inevitably, he earned a reputation as something of a rebel in the generally conformist world of classical music, but also gained respect for the clarity and intellectual rigour of his interpretations of the most canonical of composers, including Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. That dichotomy was entirely typical of his life and work, and reflected his unconventional approach to a musical career which encompassed classical music, jazz, and film music.
Guldas methods of both self-expression and drawing attention to his work were often bizarre. He is said to have performed naked on one occasion, and last year he faxed reports of his death to various news agencies, intending to announce his resurrection at a subsequent concert. Such things did not sit well with the classical establishment, and his reputation as a serious artist suffered as a consequence in some quarters.
His actions seemed based in genuinely held convictions about the need to move away from what he saw as the stultifying conformity of classical music performance, and also of classical music education (he went on to establish a school for students who wanted to learn improvisation in 1968). His own musical education, which was gained at the heart of that establishment in Vienna, where he studied at the Grossmann Conservatory and the Vienna Academy of Music, was conventional enough, and he was thrust onto the international recital platform after winning the Geneva International Piano Competition in 1946.
His own improvisations employed the same highly refined sense of structural development and searching intellectual discovery as his classical playing. His compositions, which he approached with a similar sense of boundary-breaking eclecticism, often drew on both genres within a single work, as in orchestral works like The Veiled Old Land or his Symphony in F.
Whatever oddities he might have employed around his work, his application to classical music eschewed anything in the way of mere novelty or wilful eccentricity. His recording of Bachs The Well-Tempered Clavier for Philips is his best known classical work, and remains a highly regarded interpretation, as do his performances of Chopin, Mozart and Beethoven.
He died of heart failure at his home, and is survived by two sons.