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This four-CD album of recordings dating from the 1950s of Brahms, Schubert and Schumann colours and questions the unqualified praise, indeed worship, which surrounded Gieseking like a halo throughout his career. Celebrated by many (though not by the French) as the greatest of all Debussy pianists, his playing was said ‘to breathe perfume’. His performances of other composers, therefore, invite a different challenge and fascination.

Even if Gieseking was a nonpareil he was not above criticism. He claimed that he never practised much and that technical exercises were an irrelevance because performance was essentially a mental rather than physical process. This approach is borne out in readings of a bewildering variety, ranging from the superlative to the ill-considered and sketchy. At his least distinguished he could sound impulsive, flurried, testy, and suffi ciently small-scaled to suggest music viewed through the wrong end of a telescope. He could make you long for greater expansiveness, warmth and, notably in Brahms, a greater sense of underlying rhetoric. He is very much on autopilot in Schubert’s A-flat Impromptu Op 90/6, making it diffi cult to imagine a more perfunctory view of its cascading magic. The more extrovert the music (Brahms Op 79 Rhapsodies and the concluding Rhapsody from Op 119) the more sketchy the detail, the greater the instability.

Yet mercifully elsewhere there is one glory after another. Generally, you become aware of Gieseking’s contempt for grand- standing (always excepting his startling late appearance in the Russian Romantics series when his no-holds-barred rampage through Rachmaninov’s Concertos Nos 2 and 3 suggested a latent violence beneath that legendary shimmering and interior world). For him, Richter’s famous (infamous?) slow tempi in Schubert or Roslyn Tureck’s high-priestess approach to Bach would surely seem pretentious. Obeying Ravel’s plea that is ‘it is suffi cient to play my music rather than interpret it’, he left self-conscious underlining and idiosyncrasy to others.

His pedalling was a unique phenomenon, at once subtle and spare (‘I’m sure he pedalled a hundred times in one bar of a Scarlatti sonata,’ exclaimed my early teacher Ronald Smith) leading to a wondrous chiaroscuro, opalescence and tone-painting.

What piquancy in Schumann’s Prophet Bird, with an unerring sense of its odd whimsy. His way with Brahms’ Op 118/6 Intermezzo, that desolating masterpiece in miniature with its foretaste of Debussy’s impressionism, is a wonder of half-lights and insinuation, while Schubert’s Moment Musicaux finds him at his most concentrated, capturing with a sublime simplicity and without any extraneous pleading, the very essence of Schubert’s poetry.

Chopin and German pianists have often proved an uneasy combination: Backhaus could ‘pin back a Mazurka by the ears and belabour it unmercifully’; Kempff’s Chopin could leave the strangest impression. Yet Gieseking, who early in his life learnt the complete works of Chopin only (with few exceptions) to dismiss them later, is affectionate and confiding in the Berceuse’s ‘rain of silvery fire’, becalmed rather than hectic or flushed in much of the Barcarolle.

In conclusion, you may blow hot and cold at Gieseking’s playing; yet all students at music colleges, indifferent to past glory and aware of little beyond Lang Lang’s lurid, high-profile celebrity, should take stock and listen. Gieseking’s artistry, whether at its finest or least convincing repays constant consideration. He remains an artist with a permanent rather than temporary place in the pantheon of great pianists.

BRYCE MORRISON Read the full review on Agora Classica


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