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Bryce Morrison
Gramophone, January 2010

Poise and grace in this collection of Gieseking in German repertoire

A famous response to Gieseking’s playing as being “like Monet in Giverny” was made with reference to his legendary Debussy performances, Yet although Gieseking’s phenomenal aural sensitivity earned him a unique reputation in French piano music, his repertoire was all-embracing. This included the concertos of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov and, in 1930, he gave a New York recital entirely devoted to contemporary music. All the more reason then to celebrate Naxos’s release of Gieseking’s Bach and Beethoven in recordings dating from 1931–40, made when this unique artist was at the height of his career.

Here you will search in vain for the sort of muddles or confusions that would sometimes plague his performances (evidence of his proud boast that he did little practice). His Bach has a peerless lightness, grace and natural beauty, the reverse of Teutonic earnestness and heaviness. The Andante from the Italian Concerto, a tirelessly ornamented aria, is given with an enviable poise and lucidity while in the Gigue from the First Partita his playing is, again, the opposite of a more familiar cold-hearted virtuosity, making you regret that there are only excerpts from this exquisite masterpiece. In the Fifth Partita (given complete) Gieseking shows the most subtle virtuosity and is no less convincing in the Sixth Partita’s more strenuous and concentrated demands.

Beethoven’s Tempest Sonata is given without first- or last-movement repeats and is taken, in those outer movements, at such a pace that there are occasional dangers that the music’s character is whisked out of existence (the finale is, after all, marked allegretto). For encores there are Beethoven’s E flat Bagatelle from Op 33 and the Bach-Hess Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring where Gieseking plays with admirable restraint while not quite equalling Dame Myra’s own inimitable poise.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, June 2009

Though of German parentage, his French place of birth gave Walter Gieseking a split loyalty between the composers from both counties, though in a distinguished career he was particularly associated with Debussy and Ravel. Bach, on the other hand, formed a very small part of his concert repertoire, much of the present disc coming from considerable time spent in the Columbia recording studio in 1939. His view was very rhythmically and emotionally straightlaced, though he played it in purely pianistic terms with no attempt to create the period correctness that had yet to become fashionable. The accuracy of his fingers could fashion an extremely fast final Rondo to the Italian Concerto, and it is unclear as to how much use he made of pedals, but his general approach is dry and keeping within the keyboard quality of Bach’s time.  It has been written that Gieseking had done everything the charismatic Glenn Gould was to do a few decades later, and there is an element of truth in that, though I would always prefer Gieseking. Evidence of the approach to Bach at the time comes with the fact he did not feel any compunction to record the complete First Partita, only four movements placed on disc and those came from differing sessions. Beethoven was part of his ‘sock-in-trade’  and held in high regard, the Seventeenth Sonata, ‘Tempest’  being a quite early recording made in 1931. He launches into the first movement with venom, the Mozartian approach to the central Adagio presenting a foil to his fast and turbulent final Allegretto. To complete a very well filled disc comes the first of Beethoven’s Seven Bagatelles. Clattery upper octaves in the Tempest, but there was nothing that Ward Marston could do about that, the disc being exemplary and often sounding quite modern.

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