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Walter Wilhelm Gieseking

Walter Wilhelm Gieseking

Walter Wilhelm Gieseking

*5 XI 1895 Lyon, †26 X 1956 Londyn

Walter Wilhelm Gieseking - was the son of a professor of entomology. His childhood was spent in the south of France and Italy. He began his piano lessons with his mother at the age of 4, and made his concert debut in Paris a year later. In 1911, he started his studies at the Conservatoire in Hanover in the class of Karl Leimer. During World War I, he served in an army band. In 1915, he played the complete sonatas of Beethoven from memory during five evenings, creating a sensation. His international creer was launched in 1919 with a series of concerts in Berlin; he made his debut in England in 1923, and in the US in 1926. During World War II, he gave concerts in Germany and France, for which he was accused of collaboration with the Nazi regime. After the war he was forced to cancel a tour of the UK and US, and did not play in public until 1948, despite being cleared of alleged collaboration. From 1947, he ran a piano class at the Conservatoire in Saarbrücken. In 1955 he survived a heavy car crash in which his wife died. He died the following year, during a recording of Beethoven's Sonata in D major Op. 28.

Gieseking was not a typical pianist of the German school. Over a faithful rendition of the composer's intentions and a precise realisation of form, he favoured intuition and a sensitivity to sound colour; he was often named "the most French of German pianists". As a declared Francophile, he played the majority of the French repertoire; apart from the concertos and sonatas of Mozart, his major recording is Debussy's Preludes. In his youth he was also famous as a virtuoso, as shown by his recordings of Rachmaninov's G minor and D minor concertos (with the Concertgebouw orchestra under Willem Mengelberg); in the latter concerto, he was one of few pianists to perform the enormously demanding ossia cadenza. Apart from French and German composers, he also played much contemporary music, including works by Busoni, Casella, Petrassi, Hába, Hindemith, Korngold, Pfitzner (first performance of the Piano Concerto, 1923), Schreker, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Szymanowski, and Tansman.

Gieseking's major characteristic was his flawless finger technique and his crystalline, singing, flexible tone that made him a great master of colour, as outstandingly shown by his interpretation of Debussy. In Mozart, Beethoven and Bach, he used the pedal more sparingly, played in strict rhythm, drawing closer to the ‘objectivism' of pianists such as Schnabel and Serkin, but he was always more personal and intimate. He was famous for his photographic memory and perfect pitch; he could play entire opera scores from sight, and was rumoured never to practice, studying works only by reading the score. He was also a composer: he left a quintet for piano and wind, and a cycle of songs for children which he recorded with soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. Of great importance is his piano method (co-written with his professor Karl Leimer), in which he emphasised the importance of muscle relaxation during playing and the exercise of musical memory.

Gieseking made his first recordings on piano rolls in 1922, and his first electric recordings for Brunswick and Homochord. Most of his recordings were made between 1935 and 1955. They include works by Bach (partitas, Italian Concerto, Das wohltemperirte Klavier in a broadcast recording from 1950), Beethoven (several recordings of the C major, G major and E flat major concertos, and the compete sonatas of 1955-6 with the exception of Op. 54), Brahms (both concertos, numerous solo and chamber works), Schumann (five versions of the Concerto in A minor, Carnaval, Kreisleriana, Kinderszenen, Fantasy in C major and others), Schubert's sonatas, Grieg's Concerto (with the Staatskapelle Berlin dir. by Hans Rosbaud, 1937), Liszt's Concerto in E flat major, Mendelssohn's complete Songs without words (1947 and 1956), Alfredo Casella's Sonatina Op. 28, Falla's Nights in the Gardens of Spain, Franck's Variations symphoniques, Hindemith's Four Temperaments, Pfitzner's Concerto in E flat major Op. 31, four sonatas and other works by Scriabin. Gieseking's most famous recordings were made for EMI: the complete works of Debussy (1951-5, including some rarely heard works such as the Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra and the Nocturne in D flat major of 1892), the complete piano concertos, sonatas, variations and smaller works by Mozart (as well as a wonderful set of songs with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf; 1953-6), Beethoven's Concerto in E flat major, works by Ravel (Gaspard de la nuit, Miroirs, Valses nobles, Sonatine, Le tombeau de Couperin, Jeux d'eau and others, 1954). Valuable live recordings have been published on collectors' labels Music & Arts, Pearl i APR.

Gieseking was praised as a Chopin interpreter, although he rarely played his works. Full of lavish sound colour, his lyrical interpretations brought Chopin close to Fauré and other French composers. Gieseking's preference for the Romantic repertoire was also shown by his selection of Chopin's works: he most eagerly played the Barcarolle, Berceuse, Ballade in A flat major, Polonaise in A flat major Op. 53, some nocturnes, isolated etudes and preludes, while he never played the mazurkas or the concertos.

Wojciech Bońkowski

February 2007 

Walter Gieseking, So wurde ich Pianist, F. A. Brockhaus, Wiesbaden 1963
Walter Gieseking, Karl Leimer, Modernes Klavierspiel, Mainz 1931, English ed. Piano technique. The Shortest Way to Pianistic Perfection and Rhythmics, Dynamics, Pedal and Other Problems of Piano Playing, Dover-New York 1972.
Ricarda Braumandl, Karl Leimer und Walter Gieseking als Klavierpädagogen, Peter Lang, Frankfurt am Main 2006.
John Hunt, Giants of the Keyboard: Kempff, Gieseking, Fischer, Haskil, Backhaus, Schnabel, London 1994
Dean Elder, Gieseking's Debussy and Ravel performances, in: Joseph Banowetz, The Pianist's Guide to Pedaling, Indiana University Press, Bloomington 1985.


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