The controversial final concert

By Tom Quiner


Johannes Brahms had a prickly personality.

Glenn Gould was an eccentric.

Leonard Bernstein was a dashing sophisticate.

Each was a musical genius.

These three strong personalities clashed on April 6th, 1962.

Brahms, of course, wasn’t actually present in the flesh. But his famous Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor was going to be performed by the New York Philharmonic in their last concert at Carnegie Hall.

The work premiered in 1859 to less than rave reviews:

“The solo part is as ungrateful as possible and the orchestral part a series of lacerating chords.”

“The public was wearied and the musicians puzzled.”


The piece didn’t receive renown until the 1950s, more than a half-a-century after Brahm’s death. It is now a staple in the repertory.

It was to be performed on this evening with the great maestro himself, Leonard Bernstein, conducting and the brilliant Glenn Gould on piano.

Both had definite ideas on how the music should be performed. Mr. Gould insisted it should be done at nearly half the tempo of how everyone else did it. He had researched the piece, and believe that is what Brahms would have wanted.

Bernstein, a big fan of Gould’s prodigious talent, nonetheless was skeptical. They were unable to achieve a meeting of the minds, so Bernstein capitulated. However, he did something out of character. He read a disclaimer before the performance, as follows:

Don’t be frightened. Mr. Gould is here. [NOTE: The erratic Mr. Gould would occasionally just not show up for a performance.]

He will appear in a moment. I’m not, um, as you know, in the habit of speaking on any concert except the Thursday night previews, but 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’ 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. (The audience roared with laughter at this.) But, but this time the discrepancies between our views are so great that I feel I must make this small disclaimer.

Then why, to repeat the question, am I conducting it? Why do I not make a minor scandal — get a substitute soloist, or let an assistant conduct? 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.

Thirdly, because we can all learn something from this extraordinary artist, who is a thinking performer, and finally because there is in music what Dimitri Mitropoulos used to call “the sportive element”, that factor of curiosity, adventure, experiment, and I can assure you that it has been an adventure this week collaborating with Mr. Gould on this Brahms concerto and it’s in this spirit of adventure that we now present it to you.

New York Times Music critic, Harold C. Schonberg, did not appreciate the Bernstein disclaimer:

“I think that even though the conductor made this big disclaimer, he should not be allowed to wiggle off the hook that easy. I mean, who engaged the Gould boy in the first place? Who is the musical director? Somebody has to be responsible.”

Ultimately, the Gould concept of the piece was hammered by the critics of his day. However, recent research has validated his performance approach.

What do you think? You can listen to an excerpt from the controversial recording above. Enjoy the clash and collaboration of three musical geniuses.

1 Comment

  1. […] Bernstein. I mention Bernstein in light of the controversy I wrote about in my previous post, “The controversial final concert.” Glenn Gould wanted to play Brahm’s First Piano Concerto much slower than Bernstein wanted and […]