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Debussy Gieseking 6040
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Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
The First Columbia Recordings
Walter Gieseking (piano)
rec. 1931-1949
APR 6040 [2 CDs: 153]

I realise that, while I have always been aware that Gieseking was considered a great interpreter of Debussy - in the first book about pianists that I read one finds "somehow he achieved complete identification with the music of Debussy, and here he was master of his own world" (Harold Schonberg: The Great Pianists) – I have somehow never really listened to his Debussy so these two discs have given me an opportunity to hear for myself and what a real pleasure it has been. The booklet notes describe Gieseking's journey from discovering Reflets dans l'eau at the age of 18 and immediately programming it as a student, his early Debussy recitals, playing for Debussy's widow and friends and even including Debussy in his wartime recitals – something of a chancy undertaking. One of his first appearances in America after the war was an all Debussy recital; this was in 1955 and he recorded the complete works, or what was considered complete at the time, between 1953 and 1955.

APR sets the music out sensibly, avoiding a chronological programme. The two books of Préludes are on disc one with the suites, or movements from suites, and individual pieces on disc two. Out of curiosity I listened to book one of the préludes alongside Gieseking's later recordings and found the interpretations were much the same with the difference being the tempos, the earlier recordings generally being slightly faster. The exceptions are his deliciously spun Voiles, easily my favourite amongst Gieseking's Préludes and a miracle of balanced voicing and hushed phrases, minstrels and le vent dans la plaine. In the latter the later recording has an even more unruffled, utterly non-percussive sound for the chords at 0:15 but that is nit-picking and even through the background noise his layering of dynamics is astounding – a statement that counts for pretty much everything here. I think the only note that sounds out of place in these two sets is a rather harsh B flat in bar 26 of Minstrels that was evidently thought minor enough to not go for another take and I have to say his minstrels are a jolly, buoyant bunch without being raucous. Highlights of book two are a wonderfully suave General Lavine – excentric, the weightless filigree of la terrasse des audiences du clair de lune and a magnificent Feux d'artifice – how does he do that opening? Very occasionally his forward momentum means the odd rhythmic feature is scrambled - I also found in reflets dans l'eau in the triplet chords after the first series of arpeggios - but again this is a minor part of a very satisfying whole. The Préludes were an important part of Gieseking's repertoire from some of his earliest recitals and he chose to play book one at his American début in January 1926, following with book two in the same hall in February.

Continuing listening and it is not hard to see why the reviews listed in the booklet contain such enthusiasm. Christopher Howell in his review of the later set as released by Regis (Regis RRC4010 review) finds Gieseking too fast and loud in the Arabesques; I am not sure what he would think of the earlier A major Arabesque coming in at 3:04 in contrast to the later 3:37 but I find them both fluent and light-hearted. He is almost a different pianist in Rêverie which I find a somewhat lumpy and overdone with the melody ringing out a too much. This was one of two Gieseking discs in the top fourteen sellers in America in 1940 so I may be in the minority in that view. He recorded the complete suite bergamasque in 1931, the earliest of the recordings in this set. His prélude is quite stern though he brings in delicacy and some of Debussy's marked tempo rubato in the A minor section. His menuet is joyous though is taken at quite a pace, clocking in at 3:34 (compare Ogawa 4:54, Thibaudet 4:34, Ciccolini 4:35 and Vanessa Benelli Mosell the closest at 3:55). He does not linger over Clair de lune but he finds more wonder in the phrases than he does in Rêverie. His Passepied is poised and stately and quite hypnotic with not a huge amount of dynamic contrast. Another compete set here is Children's corner which he recorded in 1937, the year before book one of the Préludes. Gieseking's approach is unaffected; he doesn't add unnecessary rubato and though there is plenty of exuberance in the close of Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum it is not until the snow is dancing that a greater degree of forceful energy makes its presence felt. This and its contrasting companion the little shepherd are wonderfully done though the recording doesn't always allow all of Gieseking's clarity to shine through. In keeping with the general feel of this suite Gieseking's Golliwog is relatively restrained.

The most recent recordings here, recorded in his 1948/49 sessions include less familiar Debussy; the ballade and the nocturne. They date from the same period as the Suite bergamasque and Rêverie but have never really caught the public's imagination and I have not heard either in a live recital. That said the nocturne especially is an attractive work – I love the ending - and Gieseking treats us to a delicious performance. A little more familiar is the Danse, or tarantelle styrienne as it is also known. It is not your usual tarantelle, its rhythms only occasionally surfacing as a straightforward 6/8 though it whirls with all the vibrancy this Mediterranean dance requires and Gieseking is clearly enjoying himself immensely. Skip forward to L'isle joyeuse for more of the same energy and ferocious virtuosity; I am familiar with the story of Russian pianist Simon Barere playing Schumann's Toccata fast enough to fit on one side of a 78 rpm record but it would appear that Gieseking does a similar thing here, managing to fit this showpiece onto a side. There is no sense of overdue haste either; he shapes the opening cadenza magnificently with marvellous trills and clarity in the notes and he nails the final très animé jusqu'à la fin. The two books of Images are represented by two pieces each. I have mentioned reflets dans l'eau previously and apart from the slight scrambled chords this is a beautiful reading lying comfortably between Debussy's impressionism and his recreation of Liszt's glistening fingerwork – white waters are already frothing at the return of the opening theme, just before Debussy's en animent. Mouvement is certainly in motion - this is fast paced and then some! Even so, Gieseking has time to bring out a wealth of detail, especially in pianissimo writing and the hushed voicing in the first really chromatic section is marvellous. Perhaps Gieseking is a little free with Debussy's sans presser instruction in the en augmentant passage and the playing is a little scrappy but it remains turbulent and fiery. There is much of this passionate sweep in Cloches à travers les feuilles; Gieseking's bells shimmer though a mist rather than ring with clarity and the un peu animé et plus clair is a wash of sound with little highlights shining through. His Poissons d'or are energetic, certainly not serene creatures gently darting as the mood takes them; the water is soon whipped up into a froth and I am reminded of the fish feeding frenzy at one of Bangkok's floating markets. The final set here is Estampes; La Soirée dans Grenade was recorded in 1936 and the outer movements joined in 1938. Pagodes is definitely the highlight of these two discs for me. Gieseking is in his element, soaring themes, flexible and beautifully phrased and virtuosity that is as effortless and subtle as it is stunning. One could say the same of his depiction of the night-life of Granada, sometimes languid but bursting into a riot of sound and colour at the drop of a hat. Gieseking's rain storm is pretty spectacular with plenty of light moments, the individual rain drops teasingly brought out at Io Tempo – moins rigoureux, but sudden squalls catch one unawares. His finger-work is scintillating. To close the recital we hear la plus que lente and if you are in a mood for a grand waltz then this is for you, not that Gieseking doesn't play quietly at times but it absolutely sizzles with energy throughout and is more forceful than is normally heard.

This twofer is a wonderful and comprehensive collection of Gieseking's early Debussy recordings to add to those even earlier recordings found on APR6013, Apr's 2CD set of Gieseking's earliest Homochord, Brunswick recordings. The notes, as always, are impeccable and bring valuable insight into Gieseking's relationship with this music, the sound is clear and lively and I would have no hesitation in snapping up these recordings of such vivid and colourful interpretations.

Rob Challinor

Previous review: Stephen Greenbank

Préludes Book 1
Préludes Book 2
Deux Arabesques
Suite bergamasque
Danse – tarantelle styrienne
L'isle joyeuse
Images book 1 - Reflets dans l'eau
Images book 1 - Mouvement
Images book 2 - Cloches à travers les feuilles
Images book 2 - Poissons d'or
Children's corner
La plus que lente

Published: October 14, 2022

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