Describing his youth in his posthumously published memoirs, the legendary French-born, German pianist Walter Gieseking (1895–1956) remembered how, besides all of Wagner’s operas, he already ‘knew and played most of Bach’s [keyboard] works, probably the complete Beethoven, Schumann and Chopin, some Schubert, also some Mendelssohn, but, on the other hand, no Brahms, very little Liszt and … nothing modern!’ ‘As for my contemporaries Debussy and Ravel,’ he added, ‘I had never even heard of them!’ This was still prior to his studies at the State Conservatory in Hanover from 1911 to 1916. The precocious youth’s repertoire was indeed uncommonly vast, and it soon encompassed innumerable twentieth-century compositions as well. These efforts were facilitated greatly by his innate gifts: a natural technique, absolute pitch, stupendous sight-reading skills, and, to top it all off, an extraordinary photographic memory.
By August 1916, Gieseking was serving in the First World War, though away from the Western Front as a military musician in northwest Germany. He therefore performed throughout the conflict, often during the regional regiment band tours. Only after his demobilization on 1 December 1918, however, could he properly begin his delayed professional career as a concert pianist, aged twenty-three. Very soon he had established himself throughout his homeland, the newly founded Weimar Republic, and international success followed swiftly: between 1921 and 1928, he made his debut in twelve foreign European nations, with extended North American tours commencing in 1926. By the 1950s, he was appearing in major venues worldwide.
Shortly after making his first piano rolls, Gieseking began a series of recordings for the Homocord company in Berlin in 1923, all of which are included here – their first-ever complete reissue. His success led to more studio work, most notably for Columbia, for whom he recorded extensively in several countries from 1931 until his death, interrupted only by World War II. Featured on this release are selections by fourteen composers, plus two of Gieseking’s own chamber works and two of his transcriptions of Lieder by Richard Strauss. We are offered a wide range of the pianist’s early repertoire in particular, the Homocord discs (all of CD 1 and CD 2, tracks 1 to 9) having been produced from 1923 to 1925 and in 1927. The second CD concludes with other rare items – among them hitherto unissued Columbia test pressings – that originated between April 1937 and October 1956. Thus, not only is the young, up-and-coming virtuoso of the Weimar era well represented here, but also the mature and celebrated figure whose records increasingly became best-sellers by the 1930s.
Gieseking played a variety of Bach’s keyboard output throughout his life, and musicians, critics, and public alike admired his interpretations. After an early Berlin recital in March 1923, the Neue Zeit declared that ‘very few will be able to surpass Gieseking’s high art in his Bach performances’. In 1950 (the bicentennial of the composer’s death), he would record the larger part of the solo works for Radio Saarbrücken – astoundingly in a mere seven sessions. While his commercial recordings of Bach’s music are relatively few in number, the initial discs encompass all movements, save the Allemande and Corrente, of Partita No 1 (BWV825), namely the Praeludium, Sarabande, Menuets, and Giga, as well as the (originally unreleased) Prelude and Fugue in C sharp minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier, book I, recorded in 1923 and 1925 respectively. The fluency of these readings is indeed remarkable, demonstrating superbly Gieseking’s proficiency as a Bach player.
The Homocord recording of Schubert’s Impromptu in B flat major, Op 142 No 3, dates from 1924 and is Gieseking’s only Weimar-era disc of the Viennese composer’s music. After World War II, Gieseking prepared an edition of the complete Impromptus, Opp 90 and 142, and Six moments musicaux, Op 94 – first published by Henle in 1948 and his sole endeavour as music editor – and in the 1950s, he would record them all for Columbia. His early rendering of Op 142 No 3 is considerably faster and more rhythmically rigid than his later recordings, a radio performance and unissued live version among them. This is doubtless partly because of the time limitation of the 78-rpm disc: roughly 4½ minutes per side. The repeats of the theme are therefore necessarily omitted, although former Gieseking pupil Dean Elder recalls how ‘in his lessons, Gieseking advised against the repeats to keep the piece palatable for the public’. The youthful vigour captured on the Homocord recording will make it preferable to many listeners.
Despite having learned virtually all of Chopin’s oeuvre in his boyhood, Gieseking later played relatively little of it, often restricting his choice to either the Barcarolle or Berceuse – the only Chopin he recorded commercially after 1938. Fortunately, his pre-World War II discs document nine other selections by the composer, five of which are included here: two Nocturnes, two Études, and a Polonaise. Several recorded versions of the Polonaise, Op 53, from this early era – including those made by d’Albert, Backhaus, Godowsky and Grainger – were abridged in order to fit onto one side of the 78. Gieseking could use both sides, making cuts unnecessary. An exponent of the modern school of pianism that had emerged, he avoids any of the by then old-fashioned Romantic habits such as excessive rubato or agogic dislocation (i.e. the playing of left-hand notes before those in the right, done as a means of expression). And as was often the case, his tempos could be exceptionally fast, as heard in the Étude, Op 25 No 2. The Nocturne, Op 9 No 3, is likewise taken quickly, causing it to resemble a waltz, though he plays the A section of the Nocturne, Op 15 No 2, more slowly and, in fact, with considerably more rhythmic flexibility.
Similar to his relationship with Chopin’s music, Gieseking performed more of Liszt’s output during his early career. In his memoirs, he recalled how, already during the conservatory examination concerts, his teacher (and future brother-in-law) Karl Leimer ‘let me play Liszt’s Piano Concerto in E flat major, in addition to a Chopin-Liszt program that included the following works: Chopin: Preludes, Op 28; Liszt: Sonata in B minor, Schubert song transcriptions, Réminiscences de Don Juan.’ Yet his Liszt discs comprise but two compositions, the Concerto in E flat and the Hungarian Rhapsody No 12. Once again, he was permitted to make a double-sided record for his dashing performance of the latter piece, and his extraordinary command of it makes us regret all the more that his Liszt playing was not further preserved on record.
As well as the piano works of Bach and Beethoven, Gieseking habitually played the indispensible creations of Johannes Brahms. During the Weimar era, his spirited 1924 recording of the Rhapsody, Op 79 No 2, nevertheless remained an isolated (studio) diversion into Brahms’s oeuvre. We therefore once more have a precious, single sample of his early approach to a major composer’s music. He would re-record the piece in 1951.
In March 1925, Gieseking made acoustic recordings for Homocord of three of Edvard Grieg’s Lyric Pieces (CD 1, tracks 13–15): Op 43 Nos 1 (‘Butterfly’) and 6 (‘To the Spring’), and Op 65 No 6 (‘Wedding Day at Troldhaugen’). Electrical recordings of the same group followed in 1927 (CD 2, tracks 1–3). The apparent success of the first disc must have led the record firm to persuade Gieseking to redo the works, taking advantage of the new, higher-quality electrical technology that had meanwhile become the new industry standard.
Grieg’s own rather dramatic performance of ‘To the Spring’ (which Gieseking probably never heard owing to its original scarcity) is considerably faster, with a duration of 1'45" as opposed to Gieseking’s roughly 2'20". Gieseking’s two readings are, nonetheless, equally exciting. Considering his lifelong passion for lepidoptery (the study of butterflies and moths, from which his father, Wilhelm, made a humble living), it is fitting that the pianist also recorded the Norwegian composer’s ‘Butterfly’. It is a brilliant and colourful performance. Both recordings of ‘Wedding Day at Troldhaugen’ capture the festive folk character of the piece splendidly, while providing ample vigour and lyricism when called for. Gieseking brings the work to a thrilling close.
Regarding his late introduction to Debussy’s novel music, Gieseking wrote: ‘It was not until the end of 1913, at the Hanover Conservatory, that … Leimer assigned me the composer’s ‘Reflets dans l’eau’ from book one of Images.’ The result: ‘I found Debussy’s piano works exceptionally beautiful and immediately decided to play as many of them as possible.’ That Debussy’s works are among his earliest recordings is therefore no surprise. True treasures, they serve as invaluable documentation of what music enthusiasts worldwide soon came to view as the greatest Debussy piano-playing of the century. Familiar with Gieseking’s conceptions of her late-husband’s music, Madame Debussy once confided to the pianist’s American manager, Charles Wagner: ‘The Master [Debussy] has been dead more than ten years now, but at last I have found one pianist who plays his works with understanding – Walter Gieseking. I close my eyes and feel the master is playing again.’
Gieseking recorded the two Arabesques five times in all, beginning with the Homocord discs included here. The first of these two 78s (CD 1, tracks 16–17) was made acoustically in 1923, and also contained ‘Reflets dans l’eau’. As in the case of the Grieg pieces, Homocord had Gieseking re-record both Arabesques, likewise in 1927 and presumably for the same reasons (CD 1, tracks 25–26).
Hungry for work and interested in the new, at the beginning of his career Gieseking participated in events arranged by the Kestner Society of Hanover. Founded in 1916, the organization propagated modern art and, after eagerly taking the young pianist’s advice, modern music. Consequently, Gieseking found himself playing for Expressionist dance performances with Cubist stage sets. ‘First I had to select the accompanying music,’ he later recalled, ‘and this gave me a great opportunity to purchase contemporary piano compositions by Debussy, Ravel, Cyril Scott, Korngold and many others.’ New-music recitals soon followed, and for the first one, held on 12 November 1919, Gieseking programmed titles by Debussy, Niemann, Cyril Scott, Albéniz and Ravel, concluding with the latter’s Jeux d’eau. So began his lifelong relationship with the music of Ravel, for whom he would, as in the case of Debussy, earn great recognition as an interpreter. One of his very first discs, Gieseking’s recording of Jeux d’eau dates from 21 December 1923. Lamentably, more opuses by this composer would not follow until the late-30s. Incidentally, Gieseking once mentioned to Dean Elder that he had later met Ravel and heard him play. ‘When he told me this,’ remembers Elder, ‘I asked, “How was Ravel as a pianist?”’ ‘Waal [i.e. Well], you know,’ his mentor replied, ‘the New York critics said no one plays Jeux d’eau as badly as Ravel.’
Gieseking’s only commercial recordings of Francis Poulenc’s works, which he rarely performed, are of the three Mouvements perpetuels. From 1925, these readings are jovial and – as we could only expect from this pianist – wonderfully colourful, exhibiting plenty of his famous, inimitable pedalling. Although Poulenc’s music has generally never been regarded as highly as that of his most illustrious compatriots, Debussy and Ravel, a post-World War II broadcast performance (presently unissued) of Gieseking playing this same set suggests that his fondness for it never faded. He also taught it.
Gieseking began composing at the age of seven, and it remained a lifelong hobby. Though modest in quantity, the quality of his varied output is consistently high, revealing a fine creative mind, yet it has undeservedly remained largely unpublished. He mentioned a new ‘Sonata’, his Sonatine for flute and piano, as early as January 1936, which he premiered with one Herr Schmidt in an unidentified German city sometime before 4 July. While in Berlin in mid-March 1937, he wrote home to his wife, Annie, about another performance, his partner this time being the one featured here, Gustav Scheck (1901–84): ‘At 4p.m. was the rehearsal with the flutist at the Bechstein Hall. He plays excellently, which nonetheless does not make the Sonatine any less “charming” and trivial!’ After the recital, he reported more to Annie: ‘The Sonatine was quite a success, but a normal audience (one less partial to modern music) would have certainly applauded more … the flutist played very nicely, by the way.’ Despite his own criticism of the piece, Gieseking was clearly proud of what he had written; he and Scheck recorded the Sonatine on 29 April, and the Johannes Oertel firm of Berlin published it sometime that year. It has remained his most frequently performed and recorded work since then.
On 27 January 1939, Gieseking hurriedly took a five o’clock train back to New York after appearing under Eugene Ormandy in Philadelphia. Why the haste? He had to be at Carnegie Hall by 8:30p.m. to accompany the Greek-American flutist and cryptologist Lambros D Callimahos (1910–77) for the world premiere of his latest published composition, the Variations for flute or violin and piano on a theme by Grieg. Johannes Oertel had recently brought out this work, too, which Gieseking based on the first of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, the ‘Arietta’, Op 12 No 1. Following a rehearsal on 21 January, Gieseking had written to Annie about his impressive colleague: ‘Call[imahos] can play the Variations on a theme by Grieg very well … his technique is truly remarkable … moreover, we ran through the Sonatine, which he also performs perfectly.’ Callimahos and pianist Paul Ulanowsky had given the Chicago, Boston, and New York premieres of the Sonatine in January 1938. Months before, the flutist had suggested to Gieseking that he write a set of variations, inspiring the latter to initiate the work by August 1937.
As for the premiere performance, printed on the programme was the note: ‘If Mr Gieseking is able to return to New York in time for the concert, he will play the piano part in his Variations on a theme of Grieg.’ He did arrive in time, and two days later he wrote a letter of appreciation to Callimahos: ‘I would like to express my warmest thanks again for your unsurpassable playing. It was a great joy to hear not only my variations, but also the rest of your program! … I’m now going to recommend you everywhere …’ Recounting the momentous occasion to Annie, Gieseking wrote:
He played my variations very well, the fast one in a murderous tempo, so that I had to pay attention not to hit any wrong notes. After this (5th) variation there was already applause, [followed by] four curtain calls at the end. The reviews … were also really good, thus ‘my best work’ is a success – at least somewhat.
There were indeed glowing write-ups, praising both the piece and its execution: the noted New York Times critic Olin Downes described the Variations as ‘very ingeniously done, each one in a different manner and mood, and each one differently scored …’ ‘Not often has a composer such an ensemble in his own hands as Mr Gieseking could boast on this occasion’, Downes continued, adding, ‘Mr Callimahos, however, was not outdone; he performed with a degree of taste and quality of tone that matched the pianist’s achievement.’
Gieseking soon arranged to record the work with Callimahos: ‘That will then show how it is correctly performed,’ he told his wife. And so, on 3 April, the two men documented it at Columbia’s New York studios. A dazzling performance, why it was never released until now is truly puzzling.
Gieseking’s only published piano transcriptions are the Ausgewählte Lieder (‘Selected Songs’), six settings of songs by Richard Strauss. These were first printed in 1923 by the Adolph Fürstner firm, which had issued Strauss’s operas and other works since the 1890s. From the set, Gieseking most often played the brilliantly scored ‘Ständchen’ (‘Serenade’) as an encore, which he recorded along with the slower but equally effective ‘Freundliche Vision’ (‘Friendly Vision’). Regarding ‘Ständchen’, he once remarked to Dean Elder: ‘This is the kind of encore that makes you reach for a glass of schnapps after a recital. I put too many notes in it, as I hadn’t looked at the score for a long time when I wrote the transcription.’ After re-recording it for Columbia in 1939, Gieseking could write to his wife from Lausanne in January 1940: ‘In Esquire, I read that among the fourteen records listed as best-sellers is my ‘Appassionata’, as well as my Debussy ‘Rêverie’ and Strauss ‘Ständchen’ discs. The only best-selling piano records in the US!’
Gieseking routinely programmed keyboard works by Domenico Scarlatti. And according to Charles Wagner, the pianist’s repertoire included ‘more than two hundred Scarlatti pieces which he has ready at any time’. Alas, those Gieseking committed to disc total fewer than ten, with only the two Sonatas Kk9 and 380 documented before World War II; and yet both records remained unreleased despite their brilliance and accuracy. Reviewing the first of a series of lecture-recitals given by Olin Downes in 1934, for which Gieseking demonstrated the works discussed, Scarlatti included, another New York Times critic (identified as ‘HH’) lauded the pianist’s contribution: ‘His playing is always distinguished, but last night’s Scarlatti, to pick one example from many, was sheer magic … at their close the audience refused to stop applauding until he had played another, and even then were reluctant to permit lecturer and pianist to continue.’
For many years, Gieseking frequently promoted the music of his friend, the German impressionist composer Walter Niemann (1876–1953). This was especially true during the Weimar period, when Niemann’s body of piano works enjoyed tremendous popularity. Gieseking premiered ‘Alt-China’ in 1919, for example, recorded ‘The Silver Cascade’ for the Brunswick label in 1928 – his only commercial Niemann disc – and made piano rolls of the same pieces and several others. Despite any traces of originality, Niemann’s often impressionistic compositions, which also contain elements of exoticism and nationalism, can too easily be viewed as inferior imitations of the contemporary French masterworks – hence the obscurity of his creations today.
There is no evidence of Gieseking having ever programmed music by Albert Roussel (1869– 1937), thus making even more unexpected his recordings of the French composer’s Aria (i.e. the Vocalise No 2 from 1928, as arranged by Arthur Hoérée, c1930) and the conclusion of Les Joueurs de flûte (‘The Flute Players’), Op 27, from 1924. The latter piece’s four movements are titled after mythological and fictional flutists; the one featured here, ‘M. de la Péjaudie’, inspired by the protagonist from Henri de Régnier’s contemporary novel La Pécheresse (‘The Sinful Woman’). Gieseking’s partner was once again Gustav Scheck. Because the pianist’s Sonatine required three record sides, he and Scheck used these two selections – probably at the flutist’s suggestion – to fill the second half of the second disc. All sides were completed during the recording session at German Columbia on 29 April 1937, and the results further testify to Gieseking’s outstanding abilities as a chamber musician.
Gieseking had won much acclaim for his Mozart interpretations early on. After playing the C major Piano Concerto, K467, under Sir Henry Wood in London on 29 September 1925, for instance, the critics were unanimous in their praise. The Daily Telegraph called the young artist’s performance ‘perfection itself – nothing short of it’, proclaiming him already to be ‘one of the finest living players of Mozart’s pianoforte music’. But Gieseking faced ample criticism in later years, when other listeners began to find his Mozart readings too small-scale, condemning his practically unpedalled approach in particular. In an undated essay ‘On the Pedal’, he advocated the restricted use of the damper pedal and more finger-legato for essentially all pre-Romantic literature, arguing, ‘with regard to composers like Bach, Scarlatti, and Mozart, one should, in fact, never really hear that the pedal is being used – I feel that a “Rauschklang” [muddled sound] is not appropriate for such music’. Many marvelled at the results. In the 1950s, Gieseking recorded virtually the complete solo keyboard works of Mozart, though his earlier discs feature merely a small selection of it. The hitherto unreleased Electrola test pressing of the Piano Sonata in D, K576, appears to originate from the first half of World War II, making it the only wartime item presented here.
In mid-October 1956, Gieseking flew to London, where he recorded busily at EMI’s Abbey Road Studios. On the agenda was primarily Beethoven, whose thirty-two Piano Sonatas he was completing (by now partly in stereo), but he began with selections by Chopin, Schumann, Scriabin, and Alexandre Tansman (1897– 1986). Tansman’s ‘Blues’, from the Polish-born French composer’s Novelettes (published in 1936), may seem like an odd choice, but not when we consider Gieseking’s lifelong love for certain popular forms and for extemporization. Moreover, although his reading is faithful to the score – consistent with his belief in the ‘Werktreue’ [textual fidelity] principle – it is convincing stylistically: here is a classical musician who could, in fact, really play the blues. Regrettably, we have no recordings of Gieseking’s improvisations, but this late Tansman reading (another test pressing) at least gives us a fine taste of his less serious side.
While still documenting the Beethoven Sonatas in the English capital, Gieseking suffered a pancreatitis attack on 23 October. After undergoing a risky emergency operation, he died of post-operative complications just three days later, ten days before his sixty-first birthday. A giant had been silenced, but one whose recorded legacy has rightfully endured.
Frank R Latino © 2013