Classical Reissue Reviews

Walter Gieseking – The Complete Homocord Recordings and Rarities = Works of BACH, CHOPIN, LISZT, DEBUSSY, D. SCARLATTI, POULENC, MOZART ETC. – APR (2 CDs)

This historical assemblage of Walter Gieseking’s early recordings should prove seminal in any discussion of his monumental contribution to the art of the keyboard.

Published on December 24, 2013

Walter Gieseking – The Complete Homocord Recordings and Rarities = Works of BACH, CHOPIN, LISZT, DEBUSSY, D. SCARLATTI, POULENC, MOZART ETC. – APR (2 CDs)

Walter Gieseking – The Complete Homocord Recordings and Rarities = BACH: Partita No. 1 in B-flat Major; Prelude and Fugue No. 3 in C-sharp Major; SCHUBERT: Impromptu in B-flat Major; CHOPIN: Nocturne in B Major; Nocturne in F-sharp Major; Etude in A-flat Major; Etude in F Minor; Polonaise in A-flat Major; LISZT: Hungairan Rhapsody in C-sharp Minor; BRAHMS: Rhapsody in G Minor; GRIEG: 3 Lyric Pieces; DEBUSSY: Deux Arabesques; Le plus que lente; Reflets dans l’eau; Golliwog’s Cakewalk; Minstrels; RAVEL: Jeux d’eau; POULENC: Mouvements perpetuels; D. SCARLATTI: Sonata in D Minor; SCARLATTI: Sonata in E Major; NIEMANN: The Silver Cascade; R. STRAUSS (arr. Gieseking): Staendchen; Freundliche Vision; GIESEKING: Variations on a Theme by Grieg; Sonatine for Flute and Piano; ROUSSEL: Arai; M. de Pejaudie; MOZART: Piano Sonata in D Major, K. 576; TANSMAN: Blues – Gustav Scheck, flute/ Lambros Callimahos, flute/ Walter Gieseking, piano – APR 6013 (2 CDs) 80:01, 79:18 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

The remarkable virtuosity of Walter Gieseking (1895-1956) has long been documented, despite the fact that only a small percentage of his voluminous repertory ever found its way to commercial recordings. Gieseking began making acoustic recordings in Berlin in 1923 for Homocord, with whom he associated until 1927, after which Gieseking recorded for Columbia’s various divisions and EMI [he also recorded the sophisticated Welte piano rolls…Ed.] until his untimely passing from pancreatitis. Gifted with a natural touch at the keyboard with virtually unlimited color through canny pedaling, Gieseking also enjoyed total recall of virtually any score presented him. Despite his penchant for the Romantic repertory, Gieseking could prove quite chaste in his readings of the Classics and Baroque scores, advising his students to avoid unnecessary pedal that too often “smeared” the lines.  To call Gieseking’s 1925 Bach Prelude and Fugue a “dragonfly” account presses to hard on its keys. APR assembles the complete Homocord legacy, as well as selected Columbia commercial and test pressings known only to those connoisseurs of this pianist through private and semi-private labels.

The set includes some multiple recordings of select pieces, such as the Debussy Arabesques, which Gieseking recorded in fact five times. In the two from 1927, the richer bass tones of the piano grant us some wonderful vertical hues. Each of these, from the onset of his recording during Germany’s Weimar period, evinces slight variations in speed, weight, and color. So, too, the three Grieg pieces – Wedding Day at Troldaugen, To the Spring, and Butterfly – receive readings from acoustic and electrical sources, respectively. The gentle wash of shimmering colors still strikes with resonant power both provided and restrained. Happily, the music of Chopin, which received attention later only in the Barcarolle and Berceuse, has five entries inscribed between 1923-1925, albeit that some are played quite fast and without repeats.  Gieseking plays the first two etudes from Op. 25, and the poetic flexibility of line in the “Aeolian Harp” A-Flat Major justifies the admission price. Liszt, known to us via Gieseking only by his E-flat Concerto with Henry Wood, enjoys the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12, a rare treat even at an accelerated tempo to suit the shellac time limitations. The early Schubert Impromptu from 1924 proves equally rare, the “Rosamunde” theme and variants given strict metrical treatment but not devoid of lyric feeling. The abridged Bach Partita No. 1 has the breakneck speed and pointillistic articulation that Glenn Gould would cherish, the poetry’s asserting itself in spite of a meticulous pulse.

It was in 1913 Hanover that Gieseking’s teacher Leimer assigned him the music of Debussy, and therein was born an association so natural that even Robert Casadesus praised Gieseking as a “most excellent exponent” of the style.  Gossamer water colors cascade diaphanously from Gieseking’s keyboard no matter the “subject matter” Debussy delineates as a title. No surprise, then, that Reflets dans l’eau and Ravel’s Jeux d’eau should literally bathe us in rarified sound.  [See our reviews of the enhanced version of his Debussy Preludes on EMI…Ed.]

Poulenc’s three graceful Mouvements perpetuels (rec. 1925) flow in their askew harmonies with a sure boulevardier’s soul. Gieseking transcribed two lieder of Richard Strauss (rec. 1927), and they too flutter and float in billowing textures. Freundliche Vision sounds silver bells atop a cloud of uncanny serenity. Of the some 200 Scarlatti sonatas in Gieseking’s vast arsenal, he recorded fewer than ten, but they grant us a studied accuracy and éclat rare by any standard. The trills’ landings in the military Kk. 380 E Major are as impressive as their natural flow within the musical measure. The appearance (rec. 1928) of The Silver Cascade by Walter Niemann (1876-1953) bestows on us a slick, impressionistic work by a gifted epigone of the French school.  It is Gieseking who makes the piece “spun gold.”

The two flute and piano works by Walter Gieseking reveal both his own compositional skills and his capacities in chamber musicianship. The first, the Variations on a Theme by Grieg (rec. for Columbia 3 April 1939), takes its cue from the Op. 12 “Arietta” from Lyric Pieces. Gieseking and flutist Lambros Callmahos (1910-1977) gave the premier at Carnegie Hall, which critic Olin Downes called “very ingeniously done.”  The slight Sonatine (rec. 29 April 1937) has the benefit of flutist Gustav Scheck (1901-1984), whose expert playing, however, does not make the piece any more profound. The Sonatine remains among the few Gieseking works that find revivals from instrumentalists. Flutist Scheck and Gieseking took the 29 April recording session opportunity to inscribe brief flute pieces by Albert Roussel, a composer otherwise (lamentably) ignored in Gieseking’s official canon.

The final two selections chosen by Executive Producer Michael Spring and Donald Manildi derive from test pressings; the Mozart Sonata for Electrola (c. 1942) and for Columbia (1956), respectively. The so-called “Hunt” Sonata of Mozart (1798) enjoys Gieseking’s natural fluency, although some may find his concept rather ‘galant’ in terms of brittle dynamics. The highly florid writing suite Gieseking’s taste, as does its balance of aria and dance music. The F-sharp Major/Minor Adagio proceeds elegantly, perhaps a mite too much bejeweled. The wonted Gieseking brilliance renders the final Allegretto all grace and volatile civility. The little Blues (1936) of Alexandre Tansman contributed to Gieseking’s last London inscriptions.  A refreshing moment of light-hearted but impressive sympathy for a style seemingly “alien” to such a Classical musician, it makes a great addition to his already stupendous library.

[Gieseking performed all over the Nazi-controlled areas during WWII but was not a party member. He may have been a collaborator but was cleared after the war…Ed.]

—Gary Lemco

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