Measure by Measure

Who’s the Boss?

When conductor and soloist clash, a concerto performance can turn into a contest of wills

By Sudip Bose | July 26, 2018
Leonard Bernstein and Glenn Gould at the piano during a New York Philharmonic rehearsal, 1961 (Library of Congress, Music Division)

For a conductor to address an audience prior to a concert is nothing out of the ordinary. But for that conductor to essentially disavow the performance, before a single note is played? That would be almost unthinkable. And yet, this is precisely what happened at Carnegie Hall on April 6, 1962, at a matinee concert of the New York Philharmonic. Glenn Gould and Leonard Bernstein were scheduled to perform the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Brahms, but after intermission, only Bernstein emerged onstage. Gould, who played infrequently in public, was notorious for canceling concerts at the last moment, and at first, Bernstein had to reassure the audience that the afternoon’s soloist was indeed in the house. Then, the conductor went on to deliver a highly controversial speech that has since become part of musical lore:

A curious situation has arisen, which merits, I think, a word or two. You are 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’s 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’m 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 so 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 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 wholly new and incompatible concept, and that was the last time I accompanied Mr. Gould. But this time the discrepancies between our views are so great that I feel I must make this small disclaimer.


What led Bernstein to wash his hands of a performance in which he was about to play so significant a part? The two artists with contrasting temperaments—Gould eccentric and introverted, Bernstein ebullient and gregarious—were on good enough terms to be considered friends, and not long before, the conductor had said of his younger colleague, “He is the greatest thing that has happened to music in years.”

In the days prior to the start of rehearsals, Gould had informed Bernstein that research he had undertaken had led him to believe, among other things, that each of the three movements of the Brahms D minor should be played considerably slower than prescribed by performance practice of the day. Bernstein was unconvinced, and one can only imagine what the rehearsals must have been like, with these stubborn personalities and titanic egos clashing over the score’s most elemental structural elements. Bernstein eventually gave in, persuading the Philharmonic’s musicians to accept the radical ideas of their guest artist, though he must have feared a potentially hostile response from both audience and press, and felt the need to protect himself. Thus, the speech. Bernstein went on to reiterate his praise of Gould’s thoughtful and sensitive artistry, and he acknowledged that “there are moments in [the pianist’s] performance that emerge with astonishing freshness and conviction.” The musicians would, moreover, be going along with Gould’s interpretation in the spirit of “curiosity, adventure, [and] experiment.”

In a radio interview given less than a year later, Gould all but endorsed the maestro’s disclaimer. “I seem to be the only person around,” he said, “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. I thought it was delightful.” Was Gould being ingenuous? Perhaps. But given the pianist’s aversion to live performance—soon he would abandon playing in public altogether—there had to have been some sting in the conductor’s words. Whatever the case, more than one critic was outraged, not only by the speech but also by the performance, by an interpretation that took so many liberties with tempo, dynamics, and articulation. Harold Schonberg of The New York Times even suggested—absurdly—that Gould had played the work so slowly because he couldn’t negotiate the work’s trickier passages at a more rapid tempo.

If Bernstein’s impish act of self-preservation (or sabotage, depending on one’s perspective) continues to divide opinion, Gould’s musical ideas sound far less shocking today than they did a half a century ago. The orchestral opening of the first movement does seem almost painfully slow. The movement has a time signature of 6/4, and a conductor would normally feel the pulse in duple time, giving the musicians two beats per measure. But as Seiji Ozawa, Bernstein’s assistant at the time, has said in an interview with Haruki Murakami, the leisurely tempo dictated by Gould would have prevented Bernstein from conducting in two; he almost surely would have given six beats per bar. Because of this subdividing, I think, the orchestra seems to stab at every quarter note, accenting more of these notes than it normally would, resulting in a feeling of stagnation. And yet, when Gould makes his entrance, his tempo is not far off from the interpretations of Krystian Zimerman or even Rudolf Serkin.

When Gould chooses to elongate his lines, he ends up revealing elements of the music’s architecture that we might not have noticed before. Inner voices, for example, come through more clearly. Given the pianist’s affinity for Bach, he not surprisingly clarifies the work’s contrapuntal elements. There’s a stately passage about halfway through the first movement that sounds, in his hands, exactly like a Bach chorale, and the astonishing third-movement cadenza seems to emerge straight out of Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue—Gould might not be adhering to the score here, but what a wondrous flight of fancy and daring the beginning of this cadenza is.

Many pianists bring fire and angst to the Brahms D minor. Not Gould. Yet how many others have approached the work with so lyrical a sensibility, with so delicate and nimble a touch, with so much singing of the soul? Fundamentally, his conception is born out of the spirit of collaboration, turning on its head the Romantic notion of the concerto as a battle between opposing forces. For Gould, the Brahms is no virtuoso vehicle, pitting soloist against orchestra, but rather a grand, egalitarian symphonic essay. His version still has the power to surprise, to jolt, but his approach, I think, is as valid as any other (in the same way that Sviatoslav Richter’s Schubert sonatas are every bit as valid as, say, Alfred Brendel’s, though they were seemingly birthed on different planets). At any rate, the audience’s response to Gould and Bernstein was rapturous. According to reports, boos were also heard that April afternoon (much to the delight of the pianist, who was, after all, trying to provoke, to consciously break with tradition), though these are not audible on the recording.

In 1982, Gould revisited the controversy when he said, “Soloists and conductors disagree all the time. Why should this be hidden from the public, especially if both parties still give their all?” Usually, of course, we aren’t privy to these artistic conflicts, though nearly two decades ago, I witnessed a performance that had more than a whiff of the Bernstein-Gould encounter, one that again raised the important question: Who gets to decide how a concerto is played, the soloist or the conductor?

In August 2000, I heard the pianist Hélène Grimaud, then a star in the ascendant, play the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 at the Bard Music Festival, with Leon Botstein conducting the American Symphony Orchestra. I do not remember what else was on the program that evening, but I do recall Botstein’s illuminating pre-concert speech. It had to do with the concerto’s second movement, marked Andante con moto, and the research undertaken by the musicologist Owen Jander relating to it.

This haunting movement begins as a dialogue between orchestra and piano, the strings declaiming their lines insistently, the piano providing a tender, lyrical response. The dialogue continues in this fashion, the orchestra strident, the piano poetic and songful, until eventually, the conversation becomes less discordant, and the piano spins out a heartrending solo passage that has the effect of quieting the orchestra. The resolution of the movement is painful and hushed—in stark contrast to the light, joyous finale to come.

In an article published in the Spring 1985 issue of Nineteenth-Century Music, Jander argued that this second movement of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto was a depiction of Orpheus pleading with the Eumenides to free his beloved, Eurydice, from the Underworld. It was, Jander wrote, Beethoven’s “most elaborate venture into the realm of program music. It may well be the most totally programmatic piece of music—great art music—ever composed.” Jander drew on many sources, including Christoph Willibald Gluck’s opera Orfeo et Euridice (as well as other operatic settings familiar to Beethoven), Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and the Georgics of Virgil, to argue exactly how the composer rendered this mythic scene in sound—how Orpheus addresses the angry Eumenides, how his lyre softens their vengeful hearts, how he leads Eurydice out of the Underworld only to break his vow and see Eurydice drifting back into eternal darkness.

Based on many analytical factors, Jander argued that the movement should be felt in duple time and played much faster than usual. It should not, pace the performance practice of much of the 20th century, be played as a slow movement. To those skeptical of his conclusions, Jander sounded a stern warning, predicting that greater adherence to period style—smaller ensembles, thinner textures, swifter tempi, original instruments—would ultimately prove him correct: “When we hear this work performed in this manner we shall be better qualified to judge the credibility of a program here. Only by ridding ourselves of our habits of anachronistic performance will we be in a position to perceive this work as it was originally created, to grasp its original poetic content.”

This was the essence of Botstein’s talk. We had been primed for many things, at the very least, a swifter second movement. And sure enough, the orchestra began the Andante rapidly, announcing the theme with almost manic urgency. When it came time, however, for Grimaud to enter, she appeared not to be buying into the Orpheus narrative. She stuck with the tempo she was no doubt accustomed to, lingering over the phrases, playing the Andante like an old-fashioned slow movement. Then the orchestra responded, again at the swifter tempo, yet Grimaud stood her ground. What ensued was a clash of wills, neither conductor nor soloist willing to cede terrain. This was no dialogue but a wordless fight for all in the audience to witness. At the time, I thought I could sense the frustration on Grimaud’s face. She played beautifully and thoughtfully throughout the concerto, phrasing Beethoven’s lines with great feeling and sensitivity, though I cannot remember what happened at the conclusion of the piece, if she and Botstein shared a cordial handshake or embrace. There had been no formal announcement of hostilities that night, à la Bernstein, but that doesn’t mean the fight was any less intense—or captivating to behold.

Listen to Glenn Gould and Leonard Bernstein play the Brahms D Minor—and hear Bernstein’s infamous speech. The sound quality of this recording, presumably a bootleg of the radio broadcast, is poor; the Sony Classical CD has remastered sound and minimizes some of the Carnegie Hall audience’s rampant coughing.

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