The late Friedrich Gulda (1930-2000) was a unique voice in world of pianism. While the Austrian was noted for his interpretations of Beethoven and Mozart, the latter being his favorite composer, Gulda was also very interested in jazz and pop music. As a composer and arranger, he made a number of arrangements of pop music. His last arrangements were of “Georgia On My Mind” and “Light My Fire”, the later made popular by The Doors. He also played with a number of great jazz musicians including the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and the jazz pianist/composer Chick Corea. He had a reputation as an enfant terrible. He was awared the ring of honour at the Third Vienna Beethoven Competition. In his acceptance speech at the Wiener Musikakademie, he went on the warpath attacking the academy for its conservativism and demanding that students be taught to improvise and be exposed to a much wider variety of non-classical music. Five days later, he returned the ring, which he wans’t sure he should have accepted in the first place. In 1999, he went so far as to stage his own death and have obituaries printed in the newspaper. A couple of his students are internationally prominent today, namely the pianist Martha Argerich and the conductor Claudio Abbado.
In this performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 26 “Coronation”, KV 537, Gulda is dressed rather informally. From what I have read, he came to despise the very formal atmosphere of classical concerts. His conducting is rather unique, given that there is a great deal of informality to it. He sometimes gets up to conduct and sometimes conducts seated at the piano. In some ways, he reminds me of a jazz band conductor. When Leonard Bernstein would conduct and play the piano, he would always do so seated. However, what Gulda does isn’t too far removed from the performance practice of Mozart’s time.
The conductor really became important by the end of Beethoven’s life. In Haydn and Mozart’s time, the conductor often played in the orchestra with the other musicians. When Mozart performed his own piano concerti, most likely he conducted from the keyboard as Gulda does in these performances. When Haydn conducted his own symphonies, he played the violin in the orchestra along with the other musicians, going so far as to use his bow as a baton when needed to give guidance during the tricky passages. The conductor as we know it today was a 19th century creation. The performers of the Münchner Philharmoniker don’t seem too distracted by Gulda’s moving about the stage.
For all his love of rock and jazz, Mozart was Gulda’s favorite. Towards the end of his life, he expressed the wish that he would die on Mozart’s birthday. And so, on January 27, 2000 on Mozart’s birthday, Gulda died of a heart attack at his home in Weißenbach*.
*Gulda was far from the only musician to have expressed how he or she wanted to die. The great French organist and composer Louis Vierne, organist of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, had expressed the wish that he would die at the console of the great Cavaillé-Coll organ in the cathedral. French organists are terrific improvisers. It is generally considered de rigeur for an organ recital to contain an improvisation at the end in France. Vierne was blind, so the theme he was to improvise on had to be written in braille. After reading through the theme, he selected the stops he would use and right as he was preparing to play, he suffered a massive heart attack or stroke and died right at the console. According to his student and former assistant Maurice Duruflé, who was on hand to assist Vierne with stop changes and whatever else he might require, as Vierne prepared to play, he suddenly fell forward and off the organ bench hitting the low “E” with his foot as he fell. By the time the echoes of that note died away, he was gone.