Thursday, January 21, 2010

Walter Gieseking -A Pianist of Greatness and Swirling Controversy

Although Walter Gieseking was born in France, he is thought of as a predominantly Germanic entity - as I recall, he was born in 1895, and died in the middle fifties.
His astounding raw talent appeared early, at about age four, and his incredible gifts were soon apparent to those who listened to him during the early years. It is said that his sight-reading abilities were like no other great pianist, including the likes of Rachmaninoff and Horowitz, both of whom were resoundingly known as superlative sight readers. Gieseking sight read the Grieg Concerto at sight and at tempo, for instance. I cannot be sure as to whether that accomplishment was an apocryphal example of story telling. I assume that it indeed occurred, based upon the reality that Grieg himself saw Rachmaninoff, whom he befriended, do the very same thing! I remember, as a child, owning a recording of the Grieg as played by Gieseking; I've always been rather curious as to why this wonderfully luminous recording has not been connected to Gieseking, in historical terms.
His performances of Debussy and Mozart are legendary. Gieseking had an uncanny pianistic "vision" of the possibilities of dynamics and timbre which no other pianist, in my view, has ever matched, less exceeded. Michelangeli comes close, in my opinion, in his recordings of Debussy.
Listen to the digital revivifying of the recordings of Gieseking's playing of the French Impressionist, and I feel confident that you will be overwhelmed by the illimitable views of nuance and plasticity that this man could cajole out of the instrument.
The unfortunate controversy surrounding his relationship with the Nazi regime kept him from playing for some years after the war in various countries, including America; however, he was eventually given clearance. The result, for me, was to witness him just once, in Boston. I shall never forget the absolute magic emanating from the stage. His control over the keyboard made the music sound as if it floated not directly from the piano, but rather from the general area of the stage, as if the entire front of Symphony Hall were the instrument. His ability to totally abolish the elemental reality of the piano as a member of the percussion family is still vivid in my memory bank.
He was a large man, with big hands, making the piano appear relatively small. He appeared rather heavily bandaged around the head, having been in a bus accident which killed his wife; and yet, while still showing evidence of that recent tragic event, there he was, creating a world I have yet to be witness to again.

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