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CD Review

Ludwig van Beethoven

Piano Sonatas

  • Sonata #8 in C minor "Pathétique", Op. 13
  • Sonata #9 in E Major, Op. 14 #1
  • Sonata #10 in G Major, Op. 14 #2
  • Sonata #13 in E Flat Major, Op. 27 #1
  • Sonata #14 in C Sharp minor "Moonlight", Op. 27 #2
Walter Gieseking, piano
EMI Seraphim 69019 74:30
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Will the real Walter Gieseking please stand up?

There's no question that Walter Gieseking ranks as one of the truly great pianists of the last century. I have long considered his complete Debussy the benchmark against which to measure all others. I don't know his German repertoire nearly as well. He recorded the Beethoven piano concerti to great acclaim, his "Emperor" in particular, and, I believe, all the sonatas, with the exception of #22 (op. 54; absolutely made for him, alas).

That said, this disc threw me. One hears at least most of Gieseking's virtues: beautifully clean runs, mastery of low dynamics. However, most of these performances lack the most basic insight into the music. The opening movement of the Pathétique fails to capture the sweep of the faster sections. They just kind of lie there, flat as a postcard. The second movement begins well but doesn't develop into anything exceptional, while the finale suffers from the same affliction as the first movement. Throughout, Gieseking makes each note so distinct that he cannot create a longer line. In all, you have probably heard amateur performances of this sonata better than this one.

Things improve in the Sonata #9. Although Gieseking still indulges in his near-staccato touch, he keeps the line going in the subsidiary parts. His superb handling of dynamics in the second movement stands out, especially in his creation of seamless crescendos and diminuendos. He gives the rondo finale the character of a children's march, immensely appealing.

I'd say much the same of the Sonata #10, although I'd add that in the first movement, Gieseking seems to come down with rhythmic hiccups in executing some of the ornaments, and temporarily loses the beat. In the second movement, another children's march this time put through variations, Gieseking beautifully delineates staccato from legato. For once, his minting of separate notes has structural point. The last movement is full of wit.

Sonata #13 has been obscured by its more famous sib, the "Moonlight", but it's by no means negligible. Beethoven packs it with rambunctious wit. Critics have complained about the rhythmic regularity of the first theme in the first movement, but they miss the point, since Beethoven throws in a firecracker that blows up the narrative continuity. Furthermore, it doesn't have to be numbingly regular. Gieseking plays in such a way that you don't notice the regularity of that theme. He plays the second movement scherzo cleanly, not as wildly as I would like, conveying overall a mildly haunted effect. The final movement begins with an adagio which moves to a headlong scherzo – both of which Gieseking treats too genteelly.

I find Gieseking's treatment of the previous three sonatas well-played but very remote, as if rendering the surface was sufficient. The approach works for all of them, but you can find more penetrating readings.

On the other hand, the "Moonlight" shows Gieseking at his best. It so outclasses everything else on the program, that it sounds as if the previous pianist was a body double and the true Gieseking now sits at the keyboard. The first movement meshes with the ideal I, at any rate, have in my head. The intensity of the line and its subtle dynamic shading get to the essence of Romanticism without slipping into wallow. The dance of the second movement steps just a hair too slowly for my taste, but more importantly it does move, and delicately too. The hair-raising finale got my skin a-tingling. It's got all the energy and power that the "Pathétique" should have had. Gieseking doesn't stress his own superb pianism but tries to meld his mind with Beethoven's own. This and Radu Lupu's recording compete for my favorite "Moonlight".

Acquiring this disc may well depend on how big a Gieseking fan you are, since the performances range from disappointing to okay to near-miraculous. The CD costs about three bucks on Amazon, so you may find it worth your while to explore.

Copyright © 2014, Steve Schwartz