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

I don’t think that anyone will quibble over the fact that Walter Gieseking established himself as one of the foremost Debussy interpreters. In a well-stocked discography, his Debussy recordings take pride of place. In 1928 he made his Paris debut. Debussy had died a decade earlier, and the composer’s widow attended the recital and was deeply moved. Gieseking’s American manager noted that he played with understanding, adding “I close my eyes and feel the master is playing again”. In 1956, when the pianist died unexpectedly, the eminent French critic Émile-Jean-Joseph Vuillermoz lamented “… no other master of the piano ... has ever equaled the perfection of his interpretations of Ravel and Debussy”.

Many are familiar with the pianist’s renowned cycle of the complete Debussy solo piano oeuvre he set down in the fifties. It has gained wide currency over the years. Yet, it is these earlier Debussy recordings, dating between 1931-1949 which capture the pianist at the height of his powers. Many, including the American critic Harold C. Schonberg considered Gieseking’s best years were prior to WW11, in other words 1920-1939. The pianist’s first Debussy inscriptions were made acoustically in the early twenties. It was in March 1931 that he set down his first Debussy recordings for Columbia with the Suite bergamasque (he was to rerecord the suite two further times in 1951 and 1953). In 1936 he resumed his Debussy recordings with La cathédrale engloutie, Reflets dans l'eau and La soirée dans Grenade. Each of these garnered the highest praise at the time. You can immediately hear why, for they reveal attention to detail, sensitivity, balanced voicing, panoply of colour and genuine musicality. Gieseking’s rich, warm tone is also an endearing feature.

In 1938 Gieseking returned to the studio to record the Preludes Book 1. Once again, the beautiful tone, rich and resplendent, is very much in evidence. The whole sound world he creates is bathed in an impressionistic wash. A year later, it was the turn of Book 2. Fifteen years later, between 1953 and 1955, he made his complete cycle for English Columbia and its American outlet Angel. Singling out the two books of Preludes for comparison, one notices a mellowing of tone and a loss of glitter to the technique in the return journey, yet his interpretations remain unrivalled.

These warm transfers and re-masterings by Andrew Hallifax and Mark Obert-Thorn (Deux Arabesques) are uniformly good and excellent in every way, and enshrine music-making of the highest order. The extensive liner contribution by Frank R Latino is another positive. Kudos to all involved in this superb production.

Stephen Greenbank

Arabesques (2)
Children's Corner
Danse 'Tarantelle styrienne', L69
Estampes (3)
Images pour piano, Book 1
» III Mouvement
» I Reflets dans l'eau
Images pour piano, Book 2
» I Cloches a travers les feuilles
» III Poissons d'or
L'Isle joyeuse
La Plus que lente, L121
Nocturne in D flat major, L82
Preludes (12), Book 1
Preludes (12), Book 2
Reverie, L68
Suite bergamasque

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