About this Recording
8.111353 - BACH, J.S.: Partitas Nos. 1, 5, 6 / Italian Concerto / BEETHOVEN, L. van: Piano Sonata No. 17, "Tempest" (Gieseking) (1934-1940)

Walter Gieseking (1895–1956)
J.S. BACH: Partitas Nos. 1, 5, 6 - Italian Concerto • BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 17, ‘Tempest’


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 in 1895, 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 to Hanover in 1911 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. However, World War I 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 Gieseking 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 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. Gieseking became known for his wide palette of tone and dynamics.

After Gieseking’s 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.’ It is interesting that Gieseking chose to play Bach at his London début as he did not often programme Bach’s works. During the 1920s in addition to the D minor English Suite he played the E minor Partita. After a performance of the latter in 1929 one critic wrote an extremely acute appraisal of Gieseking, ‘Mr Walter Gieseking is a pianist of more than ordinary ability. His control over shades of tone, especially over infinite gradations in the range between piano and pianissimo, the clear definition of his agile finger-work, and the firm outlines of his rhythm and phrasing make everything he plays both vividly interesting and delightful to the ear. There is never a harsh or ugly sound from the instrument…We do not get the impression of a compelling personality, or of intellectuality in his interpretation. Yet his performances are never empty and merely brilliant exhibitions of virtuosity, because they are always musical in tone and rhythm…This style, so lucid and so rhythmical, is the perfect vehicle for Bach’s keyboard music, and the performance of the Partita in E minor was completely satisfying…’

Of Gieseking’s pre-war Bach recordings, two movements from the Partita No. 1 were recorded in Vienna in 1934, two further movements in Berlin in 1939, whilst during the following year (after war had broken out) he recorded the Italian Concerto in the same city. The remaining Bach recordings heard on this compact disc were made in New York in 1939. At the beginning of February 1939 Gieseking performed Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30, twice with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and John Barbirolli and in the middle of March he gave a recital at Town Hall where he played works by Scarlatti, Schumann and Debussy. Between these appearances Gieseking recorded the Partita No. 6 in E minor on 28 February. The way Gieseking plays the Courante brings Glenn Gould to mind and these recordings of Bach show that neither Gould nor Tureck played Bach in a way that had not to some extent been heard before.

The rest of the New York Bach recordings were made on 5 April 1939 when Gieseking recorded the Partita No. 5 in G major, the Gigue from the French Suite No. 5 in G major and Myra Hess’s arrangement of Jesu, joy of man’s desiring from Cantata No. 147. Compton Pakenham wrote in the The New York Times, ‘Before returning to Europe at the close of his American season, Walter Gieseking spent a great deal of time in Columbia’s new studios, arrangements having been made with his principals whereby he was able to record in this country. How much and what was done during these protracted sessions is still something of a mystery, but the company has given early release to a generous assortment.’ None of the Bach titles were mentioned in this ‘generous assortment’.

On 11 March 1931 Gieseking played Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat, Op. 87, at the Queen’s Hall in London. He and conductor Oskar Fried received rave reviews for the performance while the very next day Gieseking was back at the Queen’s Hall performing Mozart’s Piano Concerto in E flat, K. 271, with Henry Wood: this performance was so enthusiastically received that Gieseking gave an encore of Reflets dans l’eau by Debussy. In addition to these two orchestral performances, within a few days Gieseking also gave an afternoon solo recital at the Wigmore Hall amusingly described by one critic as ‘long and arduous for a piano recital between tea and dinner’. At this time always a keen promoter of new music, Gieseking played the Sonatine Transatlantique by Alexandre Tansman and Walter Niemann’s Garden Music in addition to Schumann’s Fantasie, Op. 17. The day after his two concerto performances Gieseking went to Central Hall, Westminster, to record Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in D minor, Op. 31, No. 2. He certainly takes the subtitle ‘Tempest’ at face value in the first movement. The Adagio is almost Mozartian in its poise and here Gieseking’s dynamic range can be heard to full advantage. The final Allegretto is taken at a fast tempo giving the feeling of one in a bar rather than three and concentrating on the ‘Tempest’ aspects again. Overall, this is a completely satisfying performance of this sonata. At the time of its release one critic could hardly contain his delight: ‘…here is perfect playing matched with a perfect recording… the gradation of tone, from a delicate pianissimo to the most sonorous forte, is altogether admirable. As for the actual playing, I know no better interpretation of this sonata and, for the present, I do not think I want one. Not for a long time have I heard anything on the gramophone to match Gieseking’s playing of the so-called soliloquy of Prospero in the first movement, or of the whole joyously impetuous last movement…For all concerned it is a splendid achievement, one of the high water marks of pianoforte recording.’

© 2009 Jonathan Summers


Producer’s Note: Gieseking only recorded these movements from Bach’s B flat Partita.

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