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CD Review

Claude Debussy

Piano Music

  • Préludes, Books One & Two (1954)
  • Pour le piano ('53)
  • Estampes ('53)
  • Images: Sets 1 & 2 ('53)
  • Children's Corner ('51)
  • 12 Études ('54)
  • Masques ('53)
  • D'un cahier d'esquisses ('53)
  • L'Isle joyeuse
  • La plus que lente
  • Le petit nègre
  • Berceuse héroïque
  • Hommage à Haydn [all '54]
  • Danse bohémienne
  • Rêverie
  • Mazurka
  • Valse romantique
  • Dance Arabesques
  • Nocturne
  • Danse (Tarentelle styrienne)
  • Ballade slave
  • Fantasie for Piano & Orchestra*
Walter Gieseking, piano
Orchester des Hessischen Rundfunks/Kurt Schroder ('51)
EMI 65855 Monaural 4 CDs all except Fantasie released in 1954
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon JapanOrder Now from ArkivMusic.comFind it at CD Universe Find it at JPC

Sometimes a review is an experience. I had several while living with these recordings. One was the realization that Gieseking was to the piano what Stokowski was to the orchestra. Listen to the pianist at La soiree dans Grenade, and you can hear what Stokowski heard when he transcribed it for orchestra. Time and again, while listening to these discs I had this feeling.

Another experience while writing about this 4-disc EMI release was revisiting old friends and learning as I did. I took the opportunity to listen again, and anew, to my Columbia Classics release of the Debussy Préludes with Gieseking's contemporary Casadesus playing. First, however, I pulled out a book I'd read years ago. It was by an acquaintance, Abram Chasins, about pianists. I turned to his chapter about Gieseking and, while listening to these discs, realized that my comments would be just footnotes to his. So, I will present things in that way.

He evoked excitement, transparency, and movement throughout. Occasionally he would choose to hold his audience hypnotically suspended through an ethereal pianissimo or a section of tremendous repose…Only the perfect co-ordination of the strongest arms and the most independent fingers can produce such delicate suavity. Arms and fingers are not all, for Gieseking's pedaling was a miracle…Gieseking could increase or reduce dynamics in the space of a split second, from the subtlest pianissimo to the most sonorous fortissimo…He had the unique command of suspended motion with vibration, like that of a hummingbird hovering over a flower. One hears a perfectly spaced, pearly articulation for some figuration, and above or below it another figuration will come through as undulation produced as though by a boneless and muscleless hand. And always the music came first…his final and full powers were summoned on behalf of one style alone, that of French impressionism. Its range of resplendent expressivity extracted from Gieseking a rare state of inspiration, the kind that depersonalizes an artist and enables his auditors to catch glimpses of eternity.

Now for the post scripts. First, comparing Casadesus with Gieseking is really educative. Gieseking is slower in the Préludes, 4 minutes so over all. The difference is immediately apparent in the first Prélude. In addition, Casadesus has a dryer sound to the recording. Gieseking seems to use more pedal, providing a more resonant sound. In fact, this is one fingerprint of Gieseking in all of the pieces, using the pedal he imbues the music with a more orchestral texture. Please also note that even though Gieseking is slower than Casadesus he is not flaccid. The precision and attack of his fingers is phenomenal. I appreciate both Casadesus and Gieseking in these pieces.

I have no other monaural recordings of Debussy's piano music for comparison. For that matter, I'm not sure there are any comparisons. What EMI offer on the other three discs is icing on the cake. The "Clair de Lune" is riveting and mercurial at the same time. I cannot imagine anyone ever playing it better. In the Estampes, "Pagoda" Gieseking somehow gets the piano to sound like a gamelan!!!! He makes my fingers ache, trying to imagine what it takes to make that darting note with his pinkie just into the first étude. There were moments in the second étude where I realized that, for a period of time, I had been transported to some state of ecstasy. Étude #3 is a masterpiece in itself. Its inception is oriental, the pedal giving the piano a resonance not unlike a gamelan. This is a water-color of moods shifting like infinity in motion. There are other countless examples I could cite. The bottom line is that Gieseking makes the Études sound more like music than studies, something a lot of current pianists could profit from.

Another thought pattern that developed while listening, on yet another night, is the insight that Debussy's piano music is really revolutionary!! If you listen to Brahms and then to Debussy you realize that a chaotic landslide has occurred in "classical music". (I had to get Chaos theory in here somehow) For some reason, Yeats' comes to mind:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;

We have to try to remember just how different was this music and Gieseking brings this out better than anyone.

The bottom line in this review is that I cannot imagine anyone who considers themselves a serious listener of classical music, or anyone interested in Debussy's piano music not having these discs. The performances are historic, the remastered sound is wonderful, warm and detailed. These discs won the Gramophone award for historic non-vocal recording of 1996. Now I hear why.

I place this paragraph as an afterthought. My advice is skip this paragraph, go out and buy this set (and the Casadesus if you can find it) and enjoy. Okay, you've been warned. Listening to this disc I happened to write the name Firkušný. I puzzled over this for awhile. Then it occurred to me that this is how I expected Firkušný to play Debussy but I was disappointed in only the Debussy in a recent EMI set. What I am getting at, before I lose the point, is that the two men have a style (except in Debussy apparently) which is similar. Don't you wish you'd followed my advice at the beginning?

Copyright © 1997, Robert Stumpf II