MENDELSSOHN: 17 Songs Without Words; BRAHMS: Piano Sonata No. 3 in F Minor, Op. 5 – Walter Gieseking, piano – Urania URN 22.324, 78:56 (Distrib. Albany) ****:
The artistry of pianist Walter Gieseking (1895-1956) has always held me in thrall, with his exquisite touch and limitless palette, a refined sonority abetted by pedaled nuances that made the music of Debussy, Brahms, Grieg, Schumann, Mozart, and Mendelssohn shimmer with elastic luminosity. Urania has spliced the 1956 set of Mendelssohn miniatures to the 1948 Brahms F Minor Sonata, a curious but nevertheless musically satisfying arrangement.
The Mendelssohn works are the same as those offered by EMI, coupled with 31 Lyric Pieces of Grieg (5 66775 2). The Urania acoustic is harsh but not tinny, so Gieseking’s piano has muscle and bite without sacrificing his capacities for leggierissimo and legato. None plays the E Major, Op. 19, No. 1 (“Sweet Remembrance”) of Mendelssohn with such utter plasticity and nobility of line. Again, for the elegant D Major, Op. 85, No. 4, marked Andante sostenuto. The same plaintive clarity in the B-flat Major, Op. 67, No. 3. The upper voices of the Duetto in A-flat Major, Op. 38, No. 6 float over an ostinato bass that too proves supple and dynamically shaded.
The several Venetian gondola songs resonate with liquid grace and eroticism. The G Minor, Op. 53, No. 3 provides a darker menace in both composer and performer, a hint of what the G Minor Concerto might have sounded like had Gieseking recorded it. Expressive tenderness in the G Major, Op. 62, No. 1 (“May Breezes”), the accompaniment gurgling. The Spring Song in A, Op. 62, No. 6, flits and cavorts without drooping into saccharine. Elfin quicksilver for “The Bee’s Wedding,” the C Major, Op. 67, No. 4. The little Kinderstueck, Op. 102, No. 5 that concludes the set is not for children but for the child in us all. Nothing effete abut Gieseking’s opening for the “live” 1948 Brahms Sonata, Op. 5, a work clearly under the spell of Beethoven’s Appassionata and the dreamy music of Schumann. If anything, Gieseking’s playing waxes hectic, with notes flying hither and yon in the presto passages, but the arioso work scintillating in its poetic associations.
No repeats for the Allegro maestoso, which distorts the architecture, but the Andante espressivo assumes pride of languid place. The four note groups lilt, droop, gambol, and exult in turn, most rhapsodically. The sweeping passion of the closing pages should dispel any notions of Gieseking’s “feminine” aesthetic at the keyboard, despite the gossamer qualities of sound he produced. A breakneck tempo smears some of the Scherzo; no repeats, but the trio section allows a moment of repose before the alternately rough and diaphanous da capo. The playing in the last two sections, the Ruckblick (Glance Back) and Allegro moderato, has a nervous, boxy, brittle quality, but the four note motif rings out, suggestive of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Breathless playing in the accelerated passages is countered by angelic playing in the arioso sections. The percussive aggression might be a precedent for Mauizio Pollini, but the canons and stretti of the last pages is old world pianism, as only Gieseking could produce it.
— Gary Lemco