Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonatas: 20 in G major op.49/2 [06:34] (1), 21 in C major op.53 – Waldstein [18:41] (2), 23 in F minor op.57 – Appassionata [21:46] (3), 28 in A major op.101 [15:58] (4), 30 in E major op.109 [15:48] (5)
Walter Gieseking (piano)
rec. 1940 (1), 11 August 1938 (2), 27 February 1939 (3), 24 February 1939 (4), Spring 1940 (5), in Berlin (1, 2, 5) and New York City (3, 4)
NAXOS 8.112063 [78:48]
From the advent of the LP to his fairly early death Gieseking was a prolific, even compulsive recorder. Among the projects left uncompleted, but quite well advanced, was a Beethoven sonata cycle. It is generally agreed that Gieseking post-war was a more contained, poised artist than he had been earlier in his career, possibly too much so for Beethoven, so considerable interest attaches to these five sonatas set down a decade or so previously to the abortive cycle.
The name of Ward Marston is probably a guarantee that everything has been done to make the recordings sound as well as possible. The sound is somewhat brittle, with a little more bloom on the German recordings, but only the relatively contained surface hiss betrays the fact that these Gieseking recordings are ten years older than the EMI discs of Debussy, Ravel, Mendelssohn and Grieg which have principally kept his name alive.
However, they have been transferred at an unusually low level. Being away from home, I listened for the first time on a Walkman which usually produces acceptable results at least for a preliminary hearing. Even with the volume at maximum the big movements so lacked impact as to suggest very light-fingered playing from Gieseking himself, lacking the scale necessary for the outer movements of the Waldstein and the Appassionata. However, back home and with the volume well up I was bowled over by the sheer verve of the outer movements of the Waldstein, while remaining perplexed by the Appassionata.
In a sense, Gieseking may be trying a historical operation well in advance of his time. I was reminded of a reminiscence in one of Boult’s books of how Gieseking played a Bach concerto on the piano with the BBC SO in the 1930s. Even before starting, he asked to have fewer strings. Boult assured him that the orchestra could play as quietly as necessary, but Gieseking remarked that the texture would be wrong. Struck by the word texture, Boult asked: was he thinking of the piano or the harpsichord? Giesekng replied that he was thinking of the harpsichord all the time. At which Boult dismissed half the strings and those left, as he put it, “tinkled away to Gieseking’s content”.
So I wonder; was Gieseking thinking here of the fortepiano? Textures are kept light and clean – the opening chords of the Waldstein are sometimes quoted as the sort of Beethoven that sounds muddy on the modern piano, but not when Gieseking plays them. The Beethovenian argument is conveyed with speed and vitality, the pianist even seeming to run over his own fingers at times. Though not as accident-prone as Schnabel or Cortot, when Gieseking catches a crab it’s usually a spectacular one, and once in the Waldstein he captures the end of the previous bar’s chord in the pedal, a useful reminder that there can be uglier things than actual wrong notes.
I couldn’t care less about the odd glitch, frankly. But hearing the record at a higher level did not entirely dispel my reaction that these performances are small spiritually. This may seem strange, since Gieseking is emphatically not one of those pianists for whom technique goes before the music. However, Mozart, Schumann, Debussy and Ravel – composers of whom Gieseking left some supreme recordings – expressed a different kind of spirituality compared with Beethoven. In Beethoven, and I am particularly thinking of the big middle-period works here, the Waldstein and the Appassionata, there is a sense of religion. By religion I don’t mean Christianity – or any other actual religious creed – but a feeling of hands outstretched to humanity, of enlightenment, of a belief in man and the universe. The Beethoven interpreters who are usually judged the greatest, however differing among themselves, seem to have this sense of religion in common. So, for that matter, did some artists, Rubinstein for instance, who one would not immediately think of as Beethoven interpreters. This I find lacking in Gieseking.
Possibly Jonathan Summers, in his informative notes, is saying the same thing from another point of view when he states that “Gieseking’s recordings of Beethoven breathe fresh air into works that, even today, are more often than not heard in performances directly or indirectly influenced by Schnabel’s approach”. Or maybe he actually prefers it like that. Certainly, there are people who object to Beethoven’s reaching out to humanity, who find him preachy and over-emphatic. Some of these people have found that Historically Informed Performances of Beethoven on the fortepiano provide them with a Beethoven they can share and enjoy. In which case they must surely be interested to hear an artist who was already tending in that direction more than half a century before. For myself, I continue to find an essential ingredient missing.
This, as I said, applies especially to the Waldstein and the Appassionata. The enigmatic late sonatas open up a whole range of new expressive worlds. Perhaps nobody can be attuned to all of them and Gieseking is certainly attuned to some of them. The intimate proto-Schumannesque musings of the first movement of op.101 could hardly be more beautiful, but the other-worldly transition between the march and the finale is perfunctory and the finale itself scampers along in a manner closer to Mendelssohn than Beethoven. Much of op.109 is also very beautiful, again lacking only the “gravitas” to balance the fleeter moments.
And last but not least, and placed first, there is op.49/2. Unlike Mozart’s “easy” C major sonata, which has a way of sounding a masterpiece however maltreated, Beethoven’s “easy” sonata can often seem so thin that even the kiddies see through it. They should listen to Gieseking. He doesn’t try to make it anything it isn’t, but with smiling grace and sparkling bonhomie he finds real poetry in the first movement. It is a virtually accepted fact that the minuet just doesn’t have, in the sonata, the wonderful lilt that the same theme has when Beethoven revamped it for his Septet. Gieseking almost persuades me otherwise.
Not quite “central” Beethoven, then, but performances to make you reassess your reactions to the music. And teachers and parents of children learning op.49/2 should consider the modest price worth paying just for a perfect performance of that little work.
Christopher Howell
Not quite “central” Beethoven, but performances to make you reassess your reactions to the music. And a perfect performance of op.49/2.