TV & Radio
Who Won in Bernstein-Gould Spat Over Brahms?: Norman Lebrecht
July 21 (Bloomberg) -- Imagine a conductor coming on stage and telling his national audience on a live broadcast that he heartily disagrees with what the soloist is about to do in the concerto but he is going to let him do it anyway.
And then the soloist gives an intermission interview insisting that ``part of the concerto idea is the sense of non- collaboration.''
Well, it wouldn't happen today in our homogenized concert world, where no maestro steps out of line for fear of offending the sponsors, but on Aug. 6, 1962, Leonard Bernstein and Glenn Gould fell out publicly in Carnegie Hall over the Brahms D-minor concerto and the results can be heard on a first authorized record release, on a Sony-BMG CD out later this month.
Bernstein's introduction was deftly worded. ``A curious situation has arisen,'' he tells the audience. ``This is a performance distinctly different from any I've ever heard -- or even dreamt of for that matter -- in its remarkably broad tempi and its frequent departures from Brahms's dynamic indications. What am I doing conducting it?''
Nervous laughter ripples through the hall. ``I am conducting it,'' he continues, ``because Mr. Gould is so valid and serious an artist that I must take seriously anything he conceives in good faith, and his conception is interesting enough so that I feel you should hear it too.''
The pianist, for his part, holds the upper hand for much of a lopsided account of the epic work, played from his usual hunched position below keyboard level and with a sonority that is unique.
There are moments when the tempo stalls to the point of stasis and the structure feels as if it is about to topple over. There are moments, too, of gruesome bad taste, smeary pianissimi, willful clangor, indifferent patches from the New York Philharmonic and surreal revelations of color and feeling.
Such impressions are invariably subjective. When you check timings against other, more orthodox accounts by Artur Rubinstein, Emil Gilels or Daniel Barenboim, Gould is never more than a minute outside average movement length. The only variable is inspiration, and that is a factor that Gould and Bernstein were prepared to indulge liberally without regard for personal vanity or critical reaction.
Harold Schonberg in the New York Times let rip next day with a rabid letter to his legendary piano teacher Osip Gabrilowitsch: ``Between you and me and the lamppost, Osip, maybe the reason he plays it so slow is that maybe his technique is not so good.''
Gould, interviewed on air, said: ``It was in no way a particularly unusual performance except for one factor. There was less divergence between the masculine-feminine approach of the piano concerto, between first theme and second theme, between the barking of the orchestra and the placidity of the piano.
``It was a much more tightly welded unit, what I wanted to do. Lenny felt that in order to preserve the antagonism of orchestra for piano there ought to be greater contrast. He was more in favor of the tradition, I wished to break with it.''
The two men parted the best of friends and there was only one winner from their live contest: the listener.
Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1, Glenn Gould piano. New York Philharmonic. Leonard Bernstein, conductor, Sony Classical Great Performances: 82876 787532.
(Norman Lebrecht is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer on this story:
Norman Lebrecht at email@example.com.
Last Updated: July 21, 2006 01:01 EDT