MOZART:  Six Variations, KV ANH. 137.  Nine Variations, K. 264. (Sept. 29, 1955).  Sonata in C, K. 545 (Oct. 2, 1955).  MENDELSSOHN:  Four Songs without Words (Oct.2, 1955).  BEETHOVEN:  Sonata in D, Op. 31 No. 2 (Sept. 29, 1955).  Piano Concerto No. 4 in G, Op. 58 (with RIAS SO/Antal Dorati) (May 24, 1950).  DEBUSSY:  Preludes from Books I and II (May 23, 1950).  RAVEL:  Sonatina (Sept. 29, 1955).  Gaspard de la Nuit (Oct. 1/2, 1955).  SCHUBERT: Impromptu, Op.90 No. 4 (Oct. 2, 1955).  Impromptu, Op. 142 No. 3 (Sept. 29, 1955).  SCHUMAN:  Album for the Young (excerpts) (Oct. 2, 1955).  BRAHMS:  Piano Pieces, Op. 76 Nos. 1-8. (Sept. 29, 1955).  SCRIABIN:  24 Preludes, Op. 11 (Oct. 1/2, 1955).
Walter Gieseking, pianist

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Along with Wilhelm Furtw”ngler and Kirsten Flagstad, French-born Walter Gieseking was a lightning-rod for U.S. anti-Nazi anger during the decade following World War 2. Until he went to study at the Hanover Conservatory in 1911 (from which he graduated into the German Army in 1916), Gieseking was raised on the French and Italian Rivieras by his German parents, who disallowed any formal education. Papa, a lepidopterist, tutored his son on field trips to collect specimens. By cultural osmosis one supposes, Gieseking became the most famous exponent of Debussy's and Ravel's piano music (after Alfred Cortot) until his death on October 26, 1956, just ten days before his 61st birthday. He was recording Beethoven sonatas in London, ate a customarily huge midday meal, and died shortly after playing resumed. Not a bad way to go.

Gieseking made his American debut in Carnegie Hall on January 10, 1926, and returned often, even recording for American Columbia. His last stateside sessions were devoted to Debussy's PrČludes Book II. In extensive and mainly excellent notes for these four CDs Jed Distler tells us that producer John Hammond had to move the microphones back in order "“to avoid picking up Gieseking's snorts and heavy breathing,"imparting "even more of an Impressionist haze [to his] translucent sonority." When World War 2 broke out, Gieseking retreated to his home in Wiesbaden but did not retire from concert-giving in Germany or occupied countries, including "several propaganda-missions." Afterwards he was blacklisted until December 1946, when Allied investigators determined that he never joined the Nazi Party. He resumed concertizing throughout Europe and South America, but was deported by the U.S. Justice Department only hours before his scheduled Carnegie Hall return in January 1949. He finally played there again in 1953—30 years after his debut—but pickets were out in force on 57th Street. He came back, nonetheless, in 1955 and 1956, when I heard him in Chicago recitals—performances of French music that were mesmerizingly beautiful.

Meanwhile, he was recording virtually nonstop in London for EMI—the "complete" solo piano canon of Mozart (which struck me then, and since, as effete overall), Debussy of course although more vaporous than ever. What Angel issued of his unfinished Beethoven sonata cycle was elegantly played but, again it seemed to me, on top of the keys rather than into the music—almost womanish, except that that adjective diminishes the remarkable art of Clara Haskil, Gina Bachauer, Annie Fischer, Dame Myra Hess (even in her decline), ditto Lili Kraus, and since then of course Martha Argerich, Mitsuko Uchida, u.s.w. Which brings us, with the exception of Beethoven's Fourth Concerto, to these monaural studio performances for RIAS broadcast, emphatically recorded (close-up, too). Amazingly, other than 15 excerpts from Books I and II of Debussy's PrČludes made on May 23, 1950 (the day before the concerto), everything else—Mozart, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, Ravel and Scriabin—was taped on September 29 and October 1-2, 1955!

The three Mozart works include one—K.Anh. 137, a keyboard arrangement of the Clarinet Quintet finale, K.581—that was not in Gieseking's complete set for EMI. Here all are played with ample tone, consummate control, and a real joy in music-making. Likewise the four Mendelssohn Songs without Words. The so-called "Tempest" Sonata of Beethoven, Op. 31, No. 2, shares the tone and most of the control lavished on Mozart the same day (a brief smear in the finale could have been patched), but I find it undercharacterized. Remember, however, that Schnabel had set an expressive standard for the entire era, despite repeated examples of a haphazard technique; Serkin took up the banner with a ferocity that wasn't tamed until his sixth and seventh decades, and then came Sviatoslav Richter, whose Beethoven in the later '50s was gloriously spot-on—the greatest, in a series of five programs, I've ever heard.

On disc 2, however, (caveat emptor, it and No. 3 have their labels switched) Gieseking's Debussy and Ravel are paradigmatic, with "Scarbo" at the end of Gaspard de la nuit in a class by itself—the eeriest, perhaps, of any from his era. On Disc 3, Schubert is mannered in expression, although six excerpts from Schumann's Album for the Young are heartily played (not very interesting music but obviously relished by Gieseking), while the sound of Brahms' eight Op. 76 Klavierstücke surpasses those he made commercially for EMI, albeit here and there a shade dainty. The first 13 of Scriabin's 24 PrČludes that follow, and conclude on disc 4, are not music I care for, to the extent that I listened to only a handful. But while the playing as such is altogether distinguished, their October 1-2 sound is thinner, even a little recessed. In the concluding Beethoven concerto before an audience, Gieseking took chances that didn't always work musically or technically, perhaps because the RIAS Orchestra of 1950 was accident-prone—a situation Antal Doráti didn't, or couldn't control. The mismatch, which Distler enthuses over in otherwise distinguished notes, sent me to several performances I hadn't listened to for years, including one conducted by Doráti 13 years later, for Mercury, with Gina Bachauer as soloist and the London Symphony Orchestra. Virtually bar for bar she outpointed Gieseking of 1950 musically. And technically—well, she was after all Rachmaninov's pupil during the years 1933-35 (and the only one he formally acknowledged).

For me the Gieseking set—a first issue, transferred directly from original masters, carefully preserved—has the equivalent of 2˝ memorable discs, meaning the decision is yours to make unprompted.

R.D. (Oct. 2001)