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Friedrich Gulda

Although he would become one of 20th-century music’s most capricious rebels — as in love with the free spirits of jazz as with the living monuments of classical — pianist Friedrich Gulda (1930–2000) was born and bred in that most traditional of musical cities, Vienna. He studied theory with the late-Romanticist Joseph Marx at the Vienna Academy of Music, and he won the Geneva International Pianists' Competition at age sixteen, eventually earning a reputation for the rare blend of cogency and freedom within his interpretations of music from Bach, Mozart and Beethoven to Ravel and Debussy. His most notable recordings included both books of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier and the complete sonatas and concertos of Beethoven. On disc and in concert, Gulda collaborated with the likes of conductors Claudio Abbado and Nikolaus Harnoncourt, as well as cellist Pierre Fournier. Early on, critics had considered Gulda a pianist in the Austro–German tradition of Artur Schnabel and Wilhelm Backhaus. Gulda won the Beethoven Bicentennial Ring from the Vienna Academy of Music in 1970, but he returned it as a protest against the conservatism of classical music education. Seeing even Schoenberg and Bartók as about the past, Gulda venerated jazz as “the music of our day, the only modern, progressive music.” The pianist loved jazz for “the rhythmic drive, the risk, the absolute contrast to the pale, academic approach I had been taught.”

As a teenager, Gulda played duets with fellow Vienna student Joe Zawinul, a jazz keyboardist who would go on to collaborate famously with Miles Davis and co-lead Weather Report; the two Austrian keyboardists kept up their musical friendship over the years. Gulda made his New York jazz debut at Birdland with an all-star sextet in 1956, six years after his classical debut at Carnegie Hall; he kept toggling between concert halls and jazz clubs, exploring both free improvisation and such standards as “Round Midnight” and “Lullaby of Birdland.” In 1965, he recorded Ineffable: The Unique Jazz Piano of Friedrich Gulda for Columbia. Ever the iconoclastic mischief-maker — infamously faking his death in 1999 so that he could host a “resurrection” concert — Gulda recorded jazz vocals under a pseudonym, happy as long as he could pull the wool over critics’ ears. In the 1980s, he collaborated extensively with jazz piano star Chick Corea, improvising on standards and their own tunes; they also recorded Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos with Harnoncourt. Even when playing Mozart, Gulda preferred his own style of bohemian clothing to traditional concert attire. His insistence on following an unpredictable muse — such as offering original compositions, improvisation and classical works on the same program — made for limited success on the typical career track in later years, particularly in the U.S. Although he gave masterclasses, Gulda’s lone private piano student was no less than the teenage Martha Argerich, who credited him with teaching her “how to listen.” She has always cherished his example, noting “his spontaneity, curiosity and love for music — for all music, not only for classical. He was such an open-minded person, so vital.” —Bradley Bambarger 

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