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Reviewed, Not Necessarily Recommended: Gulda Plays Bach

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Gulda Plays Bach, Friedrich Gulda
DG 4778020

“Gulda Plays Bach”, “First release ever”, “Private Recordings from Gulda’s archive”, “Bonus Track: Gulda’s own exuberant Prelude and Fugue”. The title and the exclamations of this Deutsche Grammophon release aretypical PR breathlessness aside—are perfectly enticing. At least to someone who values Friedrich Gulda’s second Beethoven cycle and also cherishes many of his quirks and jazz-antics. (I know I do.)

That said, this compilation does not quite live up to its promise. The English Suite No. 2 in A minor, a patch of a live radio broadcast from a 1965 Berlin Philharmonic Hall performance and a RIAS studio recording a year later, is the longest piece on this disc and the sprightly-yet-anchored performance is the most satisfying. Because the subtle white noise was adjusted to appear on all six tracks and because the audience coughs on the live cuts were suppressed, it’s actually difficult to tell the cuts apart.

The Toccata in C minor comes in bad sound quality (a 1955 private live recording). It’s the work that won Gulda the 1946 Geneva Piano Competition. But whatever special thing was present at that competition performance is either absent here or no longer easily discernible to 2009 ears. Especially for the combination of this Toccata and the A minor English Suite, Deutsche Grammophon has a more interesting, better sounding disc on offer with the recital of his student, Martha Argerich.

The Italian Concerto, driven in the outer movements, gentle yet fleet in the Andante, is fine stuff, but I can't quite hear why it might be special (compared to Alexandre Tharaud, for example), despite the Gulda’s interpretive authorship. A curiously un-involving G minor English Suite comes in very good sound from a 1969 studio recording. The Capriccio in B flat BWV 992 sounds superb given that that it is a 1959 private mono recording.  The approach is unsentimental and brisk, but the work’s mellowness is allowed to linger in the slow movements. This cobbled-together recital is capped with an encore of Gulda’s own, jazzy-Bach Prelude & Fugue. Four pleasant minutes that don’t really allow any insight into Gulda’s foible or ability for Jazz.

For Gulda fans, this CD (coming, like many of DG’s new releases, in the more functional “Super Jewel Box”) will be of obvious interest. Those interested in Gulda’s Bach will find his Well Tempered Clavier (Philips) of more lasting appeal.