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Walter Gieseking - The 1950s solo studio recordings
rec. 1951-1956
APR 7402 [4 CDs: 280:05]

Walter Gieseking (1895–1956) can be counted among that group of artists who actually enjoyed the recording studio, and a cursory glance at his discography revealed that it's substantial by any standards. I've always been a fan; his complete traversals of the Debussy and Ravel solo piano works have been benchmarks for me, especially the former. His complete Mozart perhaps hasn't aroused my enthusiasm to quite the same extent. The focus of this latest release from APR are works by Brahms, Schubert and Schumann which constitute his complete post-war commercial recordings, made for UK Columbia. Many of the titles are rarities in the catalogue. Also included are a pairs of recordings by Chopin and Scriabin, set down just days before his untimely death from post-operative complications following gall bladder surgery. He incidentally left an ongoing Beethoven Sonata cycle, unfinished at the time of his death. This is the second release from APR of the pianist's recordings. The previous was a 2 CD set: Walter Gieseking: The complete Homocord recordings and other rarities; I haven’t heard it to offer an opinion.

It's amazing to think that Gieseking recorded the Brahms character pieces in just four days (20-23 June 1951) in Zurich. For me, personally, they’re the highlight of this wonderful collection. As far as I can ascertain they have only surfaced on CD via two 6 CD collections in Japan on the Toshiba label (TOCE 8131-36; TOCE 11064-69), rarely coming up for sale, and commanding high prices, and on a 2 CD set on the Urania label (SP 4260) together with Schubert's Drei Klavierstücke D946 and an early Schumann F sharp minor Sonata Op. 11 (1942).

What makes his Brahms playing so attractive is the gentle contouring of the lines, the natural expressiveness, and subtle nuanced rubato. Sensitive use of the pedal captures some richly blended sonorities and colours. The pieces offer so many contrasting moods and emotions, from the passionate Op. 118 No. 1 Intermezzo, to the melancholy of the Intermezzo in A minor Op. 117, No. 2. The exuberance of the Capriccio Op. 76 No. 1 contrasts with the wistful introspection of Op. 119 No. 1, and the tenderness of Op. 118 No. 2, is worlds apart from the declamations of the Rhapsody which ends the Op. 119 set. Who has managed to fully reveal the bittersweet character Intermezzo in A minor Op. 116 No. 2 as Gieseking does here and the autumnal nostalgia  of  No.4. There's curbed, restrained emotion in the rather distinctive Intermezzo Op. 116 No 5 in E minor. Like Richter, Gieseking's accented upbeat 'sighs' truly convey the unsettled character of the piece. The Op. 79 Rhapsodies are robust accounts, yet he strikes a perfect balance between heady rhetoric and poetic lyricism. Being temperamentally suited to this composer, this is some of the finest Brahms playing I’ve ever encountered.

In the 1940s, Gieseking was approached by Günter Henle, the music publisher, to edit their first Urtext edition of the Schubert Impromptus and Moments musicaux. This was the pianist's one and only venture into the editing business, but it accords some authority to his Schubert playing. Each of the Impromptus is the product of a fertile and imaginative mind, and these performances reach to the very heart of each with elegance, poise and refinement. The well-known G flat Impromptu of D899 is flowing and instinctively phrased, but I was rather surprised that, although he plays it in the key Schubert wrote it in, there's that sentimentally twee change of harmony of Haslingers; it seems inconsistent for someone who's edited an Urtext. The F minor Impromptu, the first of the second set, is eloquently narrated, with drama and lyricism in equal measure. The A flat major, which follows, has an innate simplicity. In the third 'Rosamunde' Impromptu, the variations are stylishly characterized, with the cascading scales in the final variation pearl–like in their delivery. The six Moments musicaux are jewels in Gieseking's hands. He doesn't over-inflate them like some, but each is notable for it's simplicity. The lilting F minor (No. 3) is exceptional - genial and good-humoured, he just let's the music speak for itself. No. 4 is rhythmically buoyant and incisive and No. 6, in contrast, is ardent and expansive.

Gieseking avoids any hint of sentimentality in Kinderszenen, leaving one to mildly regret that the cycle falls a bit short on wide-eyed wonder. I much prefer the pianist's take on Carnaval for it's sheer exuberance and audacity. He brings such life and enjoyment to this richly imaginative score. Each piece is superbly crafted. Florestan and Eusebius, the fictional characters, who denote the duality of Schumann’s personality, are suitably contrasted. Florestan represents his impulsive, passionate, bold and brash side; Eusebius, the dreamy, melancholic side. 'Chopin' has lush emotional sweep, and the stunning virtuosity and vitality of the last piece ‘Marche des Davidsbündler contre les Philistins’ is intoxicating. The diaphanous sonorities of ‘Vogel als Prophet’ from Waldszenen are every bit as alluring as Clara Haskil's recording.

Chopin doesn't feature prominently in Gieseking's discography, yet the two pieces here were programmed often by him in concert. The Berceuse is a lullaby, gentle, lyrical and well-paced. Despite the left-hand metric regularity, the performance is devoid of monotony. His luminous tone is awash with tonal shadings. The Barcarolle is delicately voiced, elegant and brims over with poetic insights. The pianist thought highly of Scriabin's music and even stated that he 'would trade all of Chopin's music for one piece of Scriabin’. It's pleasing to have these two brief morsels, committed to disc shortly before his death.

So, what are you getting? Four discs of consummate pianism, having added value in that many of the recordings here are not to be found on CD elsewhere. Gieseking's warm, rounded tone and extensive colouristic range emerge vividly from these expert transfers. As is always the case with APR, the release is fulsomely annotated by Frank R. Latino. Piano aficionados will find plenty to savour.

Stephen Greenbank

Contents and recording dates
CD 1
Klavierstücke Op 119 recorded on 22–23 June 1951
Rhapsodies Op 79 recorded on 20 June 1951
Kinderszenen Op 15 recorded on 1 & 3 September 1955
Carnaval Op 9 recorded on 25–26 September 1951
Schlummerlied Op 124 No 16 recorded on 1 September 1955
Vogel als Prophet Op 82 No 7 recorded on 17 October 1956

CD 2 [78’53]
Klavierstücke Op 76 recorded on 20 June 1951
Fantasies Op 116 recorded on 20–21 June 1951
Intermezzi Op 117 recorded on 21 June 1951
Klavierstücke Op 118 recorded on 21–22 June 1951

CD 3 [61’51]
Impromptus Op 90, D899 recorded on 3, 5 & 6 September 1955
Impromptus Op 142, D935 recorded on 2, 3 & 5 September 1955

CD 4 [65’34]
Moments musicaux Op 94, D780 recorded on 29 September 1951
Drei Klavierstücke D946 recorded on 17 October 1956
Berceuse Op 57 recorded on 18 October 1956
Barcarolle Op 60 recorded on 18 October 1956
Poème Op 32 No 1 recorded on 18 October 1956
Prélude Op 15 No 4 recorded on 18 October 1956



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