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Great Pianists: Gieseking Concerto Recordings Vol. 1
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Piano Concerto in a minor, op. 54 [29:11]*
Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Piano Concerto in a minor, op. 16
[26:09]**
César FRANCK (1822-1890)***
Variations symphoniques [15:27]
Walter Gieseking (piano)
Dresden State Orchestra/Karl Böhm*
Berlin State Opera Orchestra/Hans Rosbaud**
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Henry Wood***
rec. c.1940-1942 Dresden*, Electrola-Saal No. 2, Berlin 28 April and 13 October 1937**, Abbey Road Studio No. 1, London 31 October 1932***
NAXOS 8.111110 [70:48]


The re-release of Gieseking’s recordings on Naxos was welcome news. I had heard much of his legendary powers and of the aprocryphal legend of his ability to study scores. The story remains in circulation that, during a long train journey before a concert in the United States, Herr Gieseking stayed in his stateroom berth reading through the score without the benefit of a piano. On arrival at his destination, he was able to perform the piece for the audience. While such a method would be a sure-fire way for me to fail at presenting a piece, a performer of Gieseking’s stature may well have been able to make it work. It remains to be confirmed whether this actually happened.
 
Those familiar with Gieseking likely know him primarily for his Debussy and his Beethoven sonata recordings. We have here a war-era performance and two pre-war events, an era before he honed down his repertoire.
 
The Grieg concerto had been recorded by Gieseking more than once; this is the earlier performance from 1937. From the outset, one realizes that Gieseking isn’t going for a flashy or indulgent approach. He hurries through the opening tumbling octaves almost as if to be over and done with them. The rest of the first movement isn’t quite so off-hand, but sentiment is obviously not a major focus of this performance. Here Gieseking focuses on narrative line. Even with the Cadenza, there is little rubato — the music is stated simply and in a matter-of-fact way.
 
Others used to a more schmaltzed-up approach in the slow movement may find this reading more practical-minded than they’d like. Gieseking sticks to his narrative approach with little emphasis on effect, especially in those last trills before the Allegro moderato e molto marcato. The jagged stabbing of the orchestra after the upward run at the beginning of the finale may be distracting. The liner notes mention in a quoted contemporary review, Gieseking’s “piano tone [is] likely to carry the day” and “in the finale, the soloist again seeks firm outlines, not spurts and jerks. The band might have jigged at bit more. It is rather stiff-rhythmed.” They certainly could have, in my opinion these many years further on. Throughout the work, both soloist and ensemble appear to hurry through or gloss over the moments that make this such a popular and enjoyable piece. Certainly there are various aspects of it that get overlooked in an overly conventional or sentimental reading, but to these ears, the insistence on focusing on other aspects tends to make the performance here rather dry and humourless. While the Grieg concerto isn’t known for its drollery, the flavour of certain passages certainly could be savoured more.
 
The Schumann is an altogether more joyous-sounding affair, with sprightliness in its finale. A performance of the work exists with this soloist under the baton of Furtwängler with the Berlin Philharmonic. This, recorded at approximately the same time, is a studio recording. Both of those performances of this piece were rarer than the more easily-found 1953 recording Gieseking made with Karajan and the Philharmonia.
 
For the Franck we have more warmth and liquidity than previously experienced with the Grieg. This being the oldest recording on the disc by five years, the sound is drier, with a bit of brittleness in the strings, but the piano comes through well. Like the Grieg and the Schumann, this piece, too, was recorded more than once by Gieseking — a more frequently seen performance perhaps was the 1951 recording he made with Karajan and the Philharmonia. I enjoy this 1932 recording more than the others on offer here, but must admit that it would not rank among my favourites. The restoration of these recordings no doubt was painstaking and, considering their age, the sound carries through well on a living room system. Overall, I am glad to have been able to hear these performances, but find them a bit too coolly-delivered to win me over.
 
David Blomenberg

see also review by David Dunsmore
 

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