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The Great Pianists: Walter Gieseking - Vol. 1
Robert SCHUMANN (1811-1855)
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54 (1841-1845) [25:11]
Edvard GRIEG (1811-1855)
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16 (1868) [26:09]
Cesar FRANCK (1811-1855) 
Symphonic Variations (1885) [15:27]         
Walter Gieseking (piano)
Dresden Staatskapelle/Karl Böhm (Schumann)  
Berlin State Opera Orchestra/Hans Rosbaud (Grieg) 
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Henry Wood (Franck), 
rec. c.1940-42  (Schumann); 28 April, 13 October 1937 (Grieg), 31 October 1932 (Franck)
NAXOS 8.111110 [70:48] 
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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!

So, 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 the keyboard!

David R Dunsmore





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