Battling Over Brahms

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Friday, April 06, 2012

On this day 50 years ago, a now-famous classical concert turned into a musical battleground –with very instructive results.  WNYC’s Sara Fishko tells the story, in this edition of Fishko Files…






At a now-historic Carnegie Hall concert on April 6th, 1962,  Glenn Gould and Leonard Bernstein set out to collaborate on a performance of the Brahms d minor Concerto with the New York Philharmonic.  Behind the scenes, the two musical stars could not agree on the interpretation: Gould told Bernstein that he wanted to play down the “virtuosic” elements of the piece, and play in a more meditative style.  Maestro Bernstein argued in favor of playing the piece as he often had, in the traditional way.  They were at such odds that Bernstein issued a “disclaimer” before he launched into the performance—which they played “Gould’s way.” 

 “Why am I conducting it? Because I am fascinated, glad to have the chance for a new look at this much-played work; because, what’s more, there are moments in Mr. Gould’s performance that emerge with astonishing freshness and conviction and, thirdly, because we can all learn something from this extraordinary audience who is a thinking performer.”

For the first time in anyone’s memory a classical music conductor felt he had to warn the audience about the unorthodox performance to follow. The Times critic the next day was negative, and even a little snide. The entire review is written as an open letter to a fictional character, the writer Harold Schonberg’s childhood friend, “Ossip.”


To read the full review from The New York Times, click here.


“Such goings-ons at the New York Philharmonic concert yesterday afternoon! I tell you, Ossip, like you never saw….First the conductor comes out to read a speech. He says that he doesn’t like the way the pianist will play the concerto…”

“The Gould boy played the Brahms D Minor Concerto slower than the way we used to practice it. (And between you, me and the corner lamppost, Ossip, maybe the reason he plays it so slow is maybe his technique is not so good.)”

This immediate critique, though, didn’t hold in history. A more contemporary examination of the concert comes from critic Tim Page in 1998, from the liner notes of the disc made from the radio recording of the program.

“All in all, this is a revelatory disc, exploring aspects of Brahm’s vast, symphonic conception that had been long neglected. Moreover, it is an important souvenir of two great musicians – musicians who could collaborate on an interpretation that was significant, original and moving, even when in substantial disagreement about just what the interpretation should be.”


By the way, the reason we can hear this concert at all, 50 years later, is that it was broadcast on radio and preserved on disc.  Columbia Records finally released it as a recording in 1998. In the liner notes, the late Schuyler Chapin (director of Columbia Masterworks in the 50s and 60s) admitted that Columbia’s original decision not to formally record the concert was a mistake, and calls the performance “another marvelous example of Glenn Gould’s splendid and curious mind at work…"


The recording of the concert, Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1, is available here.


WNYC Production Credits

Executive Producer: Sara Fishko

Assistant Producer: Laura Mayer

Mix Engineer: Wayne Shulmister

WNYC Newsroom Editor: Karen Frillmann

Produced by:

Sara Fishko

Comments [4]

Saul Somerstein from Manhasset, NY

I attended that concert and was thrilled with the reactions of the adversaries. They both made their points and still were brilliant!
It was a memorable event and thoroughly enjoyed.
Harold Schoenberg's review was more humorous than condescending.
While no precedent was set, I am sure that the impact of this event has had a lasting effect on the discussions between conductor and soloist
before a concert.

Apr. 11 2012 10:20 AM
James R. Hannah from Tottenville

Ms. Fishko's piece on the Gould/Bernstein brouhaha was, as usual, informed by her formidable knowledge and insight. I must confess to listening to the Fishko Files in the same way as I read a book: for style as well as for content. She has never disappointed this poor old country mouse on either level.

I must also note Ms. Fishko’s sense of humor. A while back she did a piece consisting solely of the endings of compositions by various composers strung end to penultimate end. It lasted for perhaps two minutes, and my sides ached from laughing as it finally achieved resolution. I smile, remembering, as I write this.

To sum up my reaction to the Fishko Files in three words: Give me more!

Apr. 07 2012 07:31 AM

Loved listening to this piece, especially the audio of the contrasting musical styles. Thank you!

Apr. 06 2012 09:04 PM
George Dorris from New York City

None of us who were there will forget Leonard Bernstein’s announcement that he was essentially disowning the performance of the Brahms First Concerto that he was about to conduct, which came as a real shock to the audience that Friday afternoon, fifty years ago today. Gould’s tempos were indeed slower than we were then used to, but this was a thoughtful performance that needed no excuses and certainly not from the conductor. Bernstein’s remarks did, however, move the concert to a historic level by the very shock that they created, which is why we are still talking about it today!
Harold Schonberg’s famously condescending review, of course, helped spread the scandal. However, I have always assumed that the fictitious friend, Ossip, to whom he ostensibly writes, was intended to be pianist and conductor Ossip Gabrilowitsch, who was surely on Schonberg’s list of great pianists of an earlier generation.
I only had one other opportunity to hear Gould in concert, on another Friday afternoon a year later, when he played, brilliantly, a Bach concerto and the Schoenberg Piano Concerto with the San Francisco Symphony under Enrique Jorda. But whatever that matinee audience made of the Schoenberg, there was no scandal, only applause!

Apr. 06 2012 12:17 PM

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