Last week I had the pleasure of working with George Gershwin as he played his own performance live of the Rhapsody in Blue with the Sydney Symphony. It was a wild ride as Mr Gershwin obviously had had three stiff coffees on the day he recorded the piano roll and the tempi were way faster than any usual modern performance. (So fast in fact that Mark Robinson the timpanist with the orchestra asked me afterwards if we could possibly never again work with dead people.) I made a little disclaimer to the audience that we may expect a little light turbulence and to keep their seatbelts fastened, which reminded me of a very contentious disclaimer that Leonard Bernstein famously made in April 1962 as he conducted Glenn Gould in a performance with the New York Philharmonic of the first Piano Concerto by Brahms. It was a live broadcast, so we know exactly what he said: “You’re about to hear a rather shall we say unorthodox performance of the Brahms D Minor concerto, 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’ dynamic indications. I cannot say I am in total agreement with Mr Gould’s conception, and this raises the interesting question – what am I doing conducting it? I am conducting it 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 that I feel you should hear it too. But the age-old question still remains – in a concerto who is the boss? The soloist or the conductor? The answer is of course sometimes the one, sometimes the other, depending on the people involved. But almost always the two manage to get together, by persuasion or charm or even threats, to achieve a unified performance. I have only once before in my life had to submit to a soloist’s new and totally incompatible concept and that was the last time I accompanied Mr Gould (much laughter). But this time the discrepancies between our views are so great that I feel I must make this small disclaimer.”

It’s actually quite a big disclaimer, going out on stage and telling the audience you think the soloist is all wrong. Perhaps what really irked Bernstein was that he didn’t get his own way and the disclaimer was a small and elegant tantrum.

What did Glenn Gould think of all this, sitting backstage as Bernstein was bagging him out? “As far as what actually transpired last year, I seem to be the only person around who felt that Mr Bernstein’s speech was full of the best of good spirits and great charm and in fact I sat backstage giggling before playing the thing. I could hardly stop laughing when we started.”

For all his good humour, only two years later in 1964 Gould gave up live performance completely and retreated to the studio. He could come to an interpretation in his own time with no pressure from pesky conductors or the roar of the crowd. In 1966 he even went so far as to say, “I detest audiences. Not in their individual components but en masse… I think they are a force of evil.”

What did the evil audience think of the Brahms in 1962? They loved it! There were cheers and wild applause. It is true the opening of the concerto sounds very slow and lifeless, but overall the Gould version only comes in only about five minutes slower than other comparable recordings. Perhaps Bernstein’s speech softened up the audience to expect something a little different and they got into the spirit of the event, although I wonder if he wasn’t secretly hoping for booing in order to justify his disclaimer. Having said that he didn’t believe in the performance, he could hardly share in the spoils of the success.


Limelight, Australia's Classical Music and Arts Magazine