About this Recording
8.111110 - SCHUMANN, R / GRIEG: Piano Concertos / FRANCK: Symphonic Variations (Gieseking) (1932-42) (Concerto Recordings, Vol. 1)

Walter Gieseking (1895-1956)
Concerto recordings • 1

Gieseking’s father was a distinguished German doctor with a keen interest in entomology who travelled in France and Italy. As a result, his son Walter was born in Lyons, France, and spent the first sixteen years of his life in southern France and Italy. Although the young Gieseking played the piano from the age of four, he had no proper tuition until his family moved in 1911 to Hanover, where at the age of sixteen he became a pupil of Karl Leimer at the Hanover Conservatory, studying for three years, after which he had no further tuition. At the age of twenty Gieseking performed the complete Beethoven piano sonatas in six recitals. World War I, however, interrupted the beginnings of his career, and it was not until 1920, when he was already 25, that Gieseking made his début in Berlin at the first of seven recitals in the city that season. Although he played music by Debussy and Ravel, composers with whom he would be associated throughout his life, Gieseking was hailed as ‘the new Anton Rubinstein’, a title which would hardly have been applied to the Gieseking of the 1950s, by which time he was acknowledged as one of the finest interpreters of the French impressionists.

Gieseking made his London début in 1923, his American début in 1926, and appeared in Paris for the first time in 1928. During the 1930s he spent much of his time touring Europe, the United States and South America. Although he was in America in 1939, he decided to return to Germany at the outbreak of World War II. After the War he played in Australia, Japan and South America, but was not able to return to the United States until 1953 owing to his war-time allegiances. In 1955 he embarked on a ten-month tour of America and in the autumn of 1956 undertook a series of continuing recording sessions for EMI in London where he died at the end of the year.

Before the Second World War Gieseking’s 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, and at his London début recital, where his programme included Bach’s English Suite in D minor, Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No. 4, Op. 30, and Schumann’s Waldscenen, Op. 82, one critic wrote, ‘Mr Gieseking’s skill is great enough in some ways… and his pianissimo now and then becomes as nearly nothing as is possible to imagine… The Bach was played with perfect clarity and his tone gradations here and in the Debussy pieces were masterly’.

At 3 p.m. on 29th October 1932 Artur Schnabel gave the third of his recitals of Beethoven’s piano sonatas at Queen’s Hall in London, and at 5.30pm Gieseking gave a recital at Grotrian Hall. The following day he took part in a broadcast concert playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C major, K. 467, giving ‘an exquisite performance’ with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Adrian Boult who also gave the première performance of the Symphony in E by Armstrong Gibbs. On 1st November Gieseking travelled to Liverpool to play Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat, the Emperor, with the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Thomas Beecham; this was also broadcast by the BBC. On the day between the performances of the Mozart and Beethoven concertos, Gieseking went to HMV’s Abbey Road Studio No. 1 (on 31st October) to record two other works for piano and orchestra, this time with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Henry Wood. The Variations Symphoniques by César Franck is given a weighty performance, enhanced by the very full quality of the recorded sound. Indeed, the Gramophone’s critic gave three quarters of his review to haranguing the record companies for the poor balance and tone quality of recordings made with piano and orchestra. ‘Is the recorder catering again to public demand, or what is supposed to be such? I cannot think all this string tone is entirely pleasant to anyone who has lived among strings. The middle broods only moderately well, and the finale is on the slow and stodgy side.’ With modern reproduction, it can be heard that these fairly early electric recordings were made in remarkably detailed sound, the low frequencies of the bass strings being captured particularly well. The final section may be a little less fleet than other performances, (three attempts had to be made to record the last side) but on the whole, it is a satisfying recording. Immediately after recording the work, orchestra and pianist then recorded Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat.

Gieseking recorded Franck’s Variations Symphoniques again in June 1951 with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Karajan, as he did Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16. 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 House. In comparison with other available recordings of the Grieg Concerto at the time, the Gramophone’s critic found in Ignaz Friedman ‘a loud performance of poor balance’; De Greef’s piano tone was ‘on the hard side’, with the opening drum-roll delightfully described as ‘touched with biscuit-boxery’; Backhaus was ‘always safe’ with ‘Gieseking’s piano tone likely to carry the day’. The description of the last movement is also amusing: ‘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 stiffrhythmed.’

In March 1942 in Berlin Gieseking gave a performance of Schumann’s Piano Concerto, Op. 54, with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and Wilhelm Furtwängler and this performance has survived from a radio broadcast. Gieseking made a studio recording of this work, however, for Columbia in Germany at around this time with the Dresden State Orchestra and Karl Böhm. The recording was only issued in Germany and is therefore a rarity. Gieseking recorded the work again in August 1953 with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Karajan.

© 2005 Jonathan Summers

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