About this Recording
8.111111 - MOZART / BEETHOVEN / LISZT: Piano Concertos (Gieseking, Rosbaud, Wood) (1932, 1936, 1937) (Concerto Recordings, Vol. 2)

Walter Gieseking (1895-1956)
Concerto Recordings, Vol. 2


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 16 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 he 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 debut 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 the Second World War. 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 wartime 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. He became known for his wide palette of tone and dynamics. 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 the end of October 1932, while giving performances in England, Gieseking went to HMV's Abbey Road Studio No. 1 to record two works for piano and orchestra with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Henry Wood. First he recorded César Franck's Variations Symphoniques and then Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat major. The Liszt is given a spirited performance, the pianist being noticeably light rather than bombastic, and, with the help of Henry Wood and his orchestra, poetic rather than histrionic. Here we get a view of Gieseking the virtuoso who during the 1930s played concertos by Brahms, Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky. The Gramophone's critic, who obviously hated Liszt's music, dismissed the recording in eleven lines, commenting mostly on the quality of the recorded sound. His sour prejudice toward Liszt is borne out in the nonsense of his last sentence, 'The orchestra always sounds coarse, do what any conductor will, and that quality is inherent in the music; in the composer's spirit, which was a queer blend'.

The previous year Gieseking had also played under Henry Wood's baton at a Royal Philharmonic Society concert, in March 1931, performing Mozart's Piano Concerto in E flat major, K. 271, at Queen's Hall in London. A newspaper critic noted that, 'His as well as the orchestra's was a beautifully scaled performance, in which the details were closely related and subtly articulated, and the originality of Mozart's design, particularly of the slow movement, was unfolded without any forced emphasis of its features'. The reviewer added that, 'We do not generally expect extra pieces at Philharmonic concerts, but the applause induced Herr Gieseking to play Debussy's Reflets dans l'eau and the "encore" was justified by its exquisite playing'. It was not until five years later, in September 1936, that Gieseking made a commercial recording for Columbia of this Mozart concerto. Whilst in Berlin, he recorded the work with members of the State Opera House Orchestra and conductor Hans Rosbaud. The beauty and clarity of Gieseking's playing is refreshing, and as the critic above noted of the live performance of this work, everything is in proportion and tastefully delivered.

The following spring, in April 1937, Gieseking recorded again in Berlin with the same orchestra and conductor. This time it was the Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15, by Beethoven. Again, Gieseking takes a light and fast view of the work, which may make it sound rather more like Mozart than Beethoven, but this is an early work, and while Gieseking's approach to the first movement is for two beats in a bar, it makes a buoyant and youthful impression. In the third movement, played slightly slower than usual, Gieseking concentrates on the leggiermente marking. When the recording was originally released it was referred to as 'deft and trim'. Two years later Gieseking played the concerto at the Salzburg Festival with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and he recorded it again for Columbia in 1948 with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Rafael Kubelik.

© 2005 Jonathan Summers

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