Walter Gieseking at RIAS
Walter Gieseking (piano)
RIAS Symphony Orchestra/Antal Dorati
rec. 1955 except Debussy’s Preludes, May 1950
MUSIC AND ARTS CD1098 [4 CDs: 246:09]

This set isn’t new but it was my first encounter with RIAS broadcasts that overwhelming date from 1955. The most rewarding and exciting element is those pieces that are new to Gieseking’s discography though it’s no less involving to appreciate that, in common with almost every artist, he functioned at a higher communicative level when not hamstrung by the recording studio’s red light. Here he has the advantage of broadcast spontaneity without the distraction of audience participation and the results are often spellbinding.
A cursory examination might suggest that there’s nothing new on the first disc but that would be wrong. Though he recorded the sonatas and a slew of other Mozart pieces in the 1950s he never recorded the Variations K137 and this refined, beautifully voiced performance adds superbly to his extant recordings of the composer’s music. The Sonata in C major, K545 is excellent and a good adjunct to the earlier mono recording, part of the complete sonata cycle. The K264 Variations, Lison dormait are just a touch faster than the commercial recording but a little less inhibited too. There is a selection of Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words and all are similarly more communicative than the studio counterparts, the more lyric generosity paying rich rewards – especially true of the Venetian Boat Song, Op.62 No.5. Though there are a few rather insignificant slips in the finale of Beethoven’s Tempest sonata it’s a powerful reading, very much on a par with his pre-war 78 set and the 1950 Abbey Road recording.
The second disc moves to central Gieseking territory – Debussy and Ravel. In my set the discs were mislabeled and it was actually CD3 that contained the all-French repertoire, so best to check. He plays a selection of Debussy’s Préludes from both books. The 1950 recorded sound is conspicuously fine and the performances emerge the more viscerally in a sense than those from the commercial legacy, given the HMVs are shrouded in that Giesekian halo of sound that was favoured for his Debussy. His Ravel Sonatine (29 September 1955) is slightly freer than the LP, not least in respect of the greater sense of animé in the finale, and similarly Gaspard here is more characterful than the familiar LP inscription, splendid though that is.
The third disc contains six pieces from Schumann’s Album für die Jugend which is another addition to his discography whilst the Brahms Op.76 set reveals all his accomplished depth as a Brahmsian. The remainder of this disc and some of the next is given over to what some might consider unusual rep for him; Scriabin’s Op.11 But that’s to forget that Gieseking was the dedicatee of a number of pieces by Haba, Honegger, Casella and Castelnuovo Tedesco amongst others. His Scriabin is effective but he’s more circumspect and withdrawn than most Russian contemporaries; less febrile than Richter and Horowitz, less aristocratic than Neuhaus, more lateral and dry than a famously incendiary exponent of the composer, Sofronitsky. Still, that’s an accumulation of qualities Gieseking didn’t bring to bear. What he did bring was a certain dryly pedalled and garrulously low intensity approach. Phrases can run into each other rather formlessly [No.2] or become inert [No.4]. He strikes a romantic cut and there’s much that’s truly beautiful but by the highest standards he’s too literal and can’t approach Sofronitsky’s rapidity of accents or sense and depth of characterisation. This Scriabin set was also released by Tahra in 2001 (TAH 490-412). Their transfer is brighter than Music & Arts’ work though inclined to be a bit clangorous in fortes.
To finish there is the Beethoven Concerto with Dorati conducting the RIAS orchestra is a valuable addition to the Gieseking discography. The violins, as recorded at any rate, have a slightly sheeny glare to their collective tone but Dorati accompanies with lean and athletic command. There’s caprice as well as aristocratic dynamism in Gieseking’s playing; a nobility and selfless sounding naturalness of utterance that I find elevates this performance above those conducted by Böhm (78 set, 1939). von Karajan (1951) and Galliera, (LP, 1955) and a live Keilberth from 1953. The finale is buoyant and exciting. Very exciting to have this though it too was in that Tahra set.
This is a most valuable restoration and something of a must-have for Giesking addicts.
Jonathan Woolf

Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Six Variations, K. 137 [9:04]
Sonata in C, K. 545 [9:24]
Nine Variations, K. 264 [14:06]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Four Songs Without Words: Op.19 No.1 [3:48]: Op.38 No.6 [4:04]: Op.62 No.5 [2:37]: Op.67 No.4 [1:34]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata No. 17 in D Minor, Op. 31, No. 2 [20:48]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
15 Preludes: Book I Nos. 1, 2, 5, 10, 8, 6,11, 12 and Book II Nos.1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 8 ,12 [42:18]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Sonatine [10:00]
Gaspard de la Nuit [19:52]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Impromptus: No.4, D899 [6:42]: No.3, D935 [11:49]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
6 Pieces from Album for the Young, Op.68 [7:13]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Klavierstucke, Nos 1-8, Op. 76 [21:29]
Alexander SCRIABIN (1872-1915)
24 Preludes, Op.11: Nos 1-13 [16:52]
24 Preludes, Op.11: Nos 14-24 [11:16]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op.58 [31:09]

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