Walter Gieseking is one of the pianists who is nowadays not
a household name - he died aged 61 in 1956 - but is recognised
for a few fine records. These include his Beethoven concertos
with Karajan and his solo Debussy recordings. He recorded all
the Mozart sonatas but not to widespread acclaim. The Naxos
website advises that “before the Second World War his repertoire
was a good deal wider than it became later. He played concertos
by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov, piano sonatas by Scriabin, works
by Schumann, Beethoven, Mozart and Bach, and championed contemporary
composers such as Busoni, Hindemith, Korngold, Krenek, Poulenc,
Pfitzner, Schoenberg and Stravinsky, many of whom dedicated
works to him. Gieseking became known for his wide palette of
tone and dynamics”. This is generally true with these vintage
recordings but for me this disc falls into the interesting
to listen to once category, rather than an essential purchase
even at such modest prices.
Gieseking is renowned for his readings
of French music and the standout track here is the Franck recorded
with “Old Timber” Henry Wood in 1932. Gieseking recorded the
Symphonic Variations again in June 1951 with the Philharmonia
Orchestra and Karajan. That recording is in the Philips Great
Pianists series as Walter Gieseking-Vol 1. The later recording
is in better sound but I rate the Naxos version as marginally
having the edge. In 1932 we had great playing and really marvelous
conducting from Wood who produces a good response from the LPO.
Definitely a fine interpretation although there is just a hint
of coolness compared with Curzon; my favorite in this work.
Gieseking also made a recording
of Grieg’s Piano Concerto with Karajan but it’s not one I know.
The earlier version of the Grieg work, presented here, was recorded
in Berlin in April and October 1937 with the orchestra of the
Berlin State Opera . According to the excellent notes the Gramophone’s
critic found ‘Gieseking’s piano tone likely to carry the day’:
‘In the finale, the soloist again seeks firm outlines, not spurts
and jerks. The band might here have jigged a bit more. It is
rather stiff-rhythmed.’ I can’t disagree with that opinion!
The performance is not without virtues but is not really memorable.
My favourite vintage recordings are by Curzon, Solomon and the
great Dinu Lipatti (coupled on (EMI: CDM 7634972) with the “infamous
Chopin recording”). These three are all still available and,
put simply, these latter versions are in a different class from
what we hear from Gieseking. For a first rate modern recording
I’d choose Kovacevich (Philips) or Lief Ove Andsnes (Virgin);
sadly, André Previn with Morecombe and Wise seems unavailable.
The sound is well produced by the magnificent Mr Obert-Thorn
but I feel it’s definitely “for fans only”. I really wonder
if this release justified exhumation as it is not representative
of Gieseking nor does it do justice to the great Grieg.
In March 1942 in Berlin Gieseking
gave a performance of Schumann’s Piano Concerto, Op. 54, with
the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and Wilhelm Furtwängler. This
performance has survived from a radio broadcast. It can be found
in a 5 CD set on DG of Furtwängler’s wartime recordings (DG
471-294-2). This is not rated as a great performance,
the feeling being that neither conductor nor pianist were in
tune with the piece or with each other. The recording tends
to suffer from “blasting” at times. The present studio recording
by Columbia in Germany at the same period with the Dresden State
Orchestra and Karl Böhm was apparently only issued in Germany
and is therefore a rarity. He also recorded the work again in
August 1953 with the Philharmonia and Karajan; pianist and conductor
made for each other! My feeling is that Schumann wasn’t a composer
Gieseking felt any great affinity to. This is a warhorse but
make no mistake about it - it’s a wonderful piece and greatly
influenced the Grieg; and, I suspect, Liszt. This version is
fine as far as it goes but it certainly isn’t a “great performance”.
I liked hearing it as I did the Grieg because the music is so
good but when listening to sixty year old recordings I need
a greater sense of occasion. Böhm was a very
fine conductor in certain pieces but I’m not sure he’s ideal
here. The fact that no-one over here has heard it before doesn’t
add to its value as a performance. There are at least ten worth
hearing and when I think of the wonderful Martha Argerich at
the Proms a few years ago it’s almost like another piece!
what to conclude? These recordings are very well presented and,
as ever, I congratulate Naxos on producing vintage recordings
at a great price and with such well-informed notes. Apart from
the Franck I won’t be returning to this disc but it was interesting
to hear and can be commended to Gieseking’s fans. What about
people for whom Gieseking is just a name and who may chance
upon this disc? Well, I rate him as a Beta pianist in most works
and prefer these pieces by a fair few great Alpha masters of
David R Dunsmore