Walter Gieseking was a master of complicated sound effects Pianist: His technique was flawless

Classical Sounds

like an impressionistic painter, he created tonal colors in a range previously unknown.

August 11, 1996|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

If the pedal is the soul of the piano, as Rachmaninoff said it was, then Walter Gieseking (1895-1956) was the pianist who raised it to the most ethereal heights.

Perhaps because of his early interest in the music of Debussy and Ravel -- which demands kaleidoscopic variety in tonal contrasts -- Gieseking worked incessantly on the pedal until he succeeded in producing sound effects in a range previously unknown.

Unlike many other pianists, he did not use the pedal to cover technical shortcomings. His complicated pedaling, which was combined with an acute ear and (at least in his prime) with a flawless technique, transformed the pedal from a mediocre retoucher into a skillful colorist.

The analogy of Gieseking's mastery of impressionistic music with painting is apt. Gieseking's sound textures are often without palpable outlines or boundaries and, when examined phrase by phrase, his playing can seem slightly out of focus.

Examined up close, paintings by Monet produce the same effect; it is only when we look at them from a distance that we realize their whole meaning. And Gieseking's conceptions of the landscapes of the musical impressionists produce a similar sense of awe.

Of the great pianists who were to follow him, only Sviatoslav Richter, Ivan Moravec and the late Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli challenged Gieseking's mastery of Ravel and Debussy.


Because last year was his centennial and this year marks the 40th anniversary of his death in a London recording studio, a number of recent reissues -- as well as never-before-released copies of live radio performances -- have been devoted to Gieseking's art.

Among the latest arrivals in record stores are the complete works for piano of Debussy from EMI Classics, recorded in the studio in the early 1950s; and an all-Brahms disc from Arbiter.

The latter contains the first two (and only surviving) movements of a wartime broadcast of a performance of the Concerto No. 2 in B-flat, five intermezzi from the composer's opus 76, opus 116, opus 118 and opus 119, which were recorded commercially just before the war. It also has the Capriccio in B minor from opus 76, which was taped during a 1956 Seattle recital on the pianist's final American tour.

The release on Arbiter -- a label devoted to recordings of unusual historical interest -- also sets out to correct what its producer and annotator, Allan Evans, perceives as three misconceptions about Gieseking.

Those are that he was primarily a Debussy and Ravel specialist; that he played better before 1945 than afterward, when he supposedly became emotionally detached from the music he performed and when his technique is presumed to have become less reliable; and that he was more concerned with tonal plateaus than with musical structure.

In correcting those perceptions, the fascinating performances collected by Evans are only partially successful.

It was chiefly Gieseking's historic role in putting their music on the map that led to his reputation as a Debussy and Ravel specialist.

In fact -- with the possible exception of Richter -- Gieseking may have had the largest repertory of any pianist in history. It included the complete keyboard music of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms; huge amounts of Schumann, Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Scarlatti, Grieg and (at least early in Gieseking's career) Chopin; and an enormous number of pieces by 20th-century composers such as -- to name just a few -- Schoenberg, Reger, Piston, Villa-Lobos, Hindemith, Korngold, Falla, Busoni, Krenek and Poulenc.

It's likely that Gieseking played so large a repertory simply because it was so easy for him.

A quick study

Stories about the ease with which Gieseking learned new pieces have acquired legendary status. For example, one has him memorizing on the overnight train from Vienna a brand new Castelnuovo-Tedesco piece he had never seen but would play the next day in Florence.

In addition, he was a natural pianist who apparently never needed to practice much, if at all. At the age of 20 he gave a cycle of all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas and later downplayed the difficulty of this achievement.

"The hard part was memorizing them -- and even that wasn't so difficult," he said.

Far from showing us a pianist enormously concerned with musical structure, however, the performance of the first two movements of the Brahms Concerto No. 2 (with Robert Heger conducting the Berlin Philharmonic) suggests instead that Gieseking was a pianist who flew by the seat of his pants.

This is indeed an electrifying and passionate performance -- only Gilels and Richter match Gieseking's explosiveness -- but it is so spontaneous that Heger goes through contortions to keep up with his soloist.

Tempos like no other

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