A piano bumper bundle

Writing on the subject of ‘Why I play Debussy’ the great German pianist Walter Gieseking (about whom much more later) made the valid point that ‘music knows no borders; it is a universal language understood by people of all nations.’ Perhaps the most pertinent example of interpretative cross-pollination in recent times is a recording from last April of Dvorák’s piano masterpiece, his thirteen Poetic Tone Pictures, composed in the spring weeks of 1889. The pianist here, Leif Ove Andsnes (Sony Classical 19439912092, c£13.50, due for release on 28th October) whose teacher was Czech, melds a seemingly limitless command of keyboard colours with a deep understanding of this immediately appealing repertory. For the duration of each piece Andsnes could as well be Czech himself. As to the playing, sudden switches from piano to forte suggest both a keen imagination and active emotional engagement with the music, in the case of the first piece ‘Twilight Way’ then firing off on a rustic ramble. ‘Toying’ brings to mind an inevitable affinity with Smetana whose Czech Dances Andsnes should make his next recording project, whereas it hardly takes Andsnes to reference Dvorák’s contemporary Grieg in the ninth piece ‘Serenade’, though I suppose being Norwegian helps. Ditto the next piece a ‘Bachannalia’ could easily pass as a Grieg ‘Elflin Dance’ whereas the cascading notes at the centre of the same piece recall Chopin’s Third ‘Scherzo’. 

Here is a player whose arsenal of technical strategems elevates him way above the norm, his seemingly effortless virtuosity, his sense of timing, his varied tonal palette, mastery of rubato (never overdone but always distinctive) and his appreciation – and ability to project – the music’s dance elements. Much as I value first-rate recordings of these pieces by distinguished Czechs such as Kvapil and others, Andsnes – whose playing is beautifully recorded – must now take pride of place, certainly in the digital field. A potential award-winner, I’d say.

According to that master twentieth-century Polish composer Karol Szymanowski ‘[Frederic] Chopin was an eternal example of what Polish music was capable of achieving – a symbol of Europeanised Poland’. The quote is borrowed from the useful booklet for Volume One of the complete Chopin Mazurkas by that fine Swedish-born pianist Peter Jablonski on Ondine (ODE 1412-2, c£12.75). These are cleanly articulated performances, polished in detail, generous with repeats, always thoughtful and appreciative of the mood and harmonic structure of each piece. In general Jablonski is best in the slower Mazurkas, such as the beautiful A minor Op. 17 No. 4 (which provides the harmonic base for the last movement of Gorécki’s Third Symphony) though perhaps the Frenchman Samson Francois is marginally more fluid in the brief albeit less-familiar masterpiece Op.33 No. 1, and even more so in the larger-scale masterpiece Op. 33 No. 4 where Jablonski sounds, at least initially, just a trifle dour. Although happy to have encountered these performances – and I’m looking forward to the appearance of the later pieces in Volume Two – for the most part this music needs to dance a just little more which in terms of ‘complete’ sets means Rubinstein (any of three sets though preferably pre-war, Warner Classics), Garrick Ohlsson (Hyperion Helios, recorded 1998), and Francois in the 1950s. Beyond those there’s a plethora of single disc selections featuring notable pianists, some recent though most of them Old School, whose love for individual Mazurkas shines through some unforgettable recordings, not least the quite magical Pavel Kolesnikov (Hyperion, recorded 2015). Best to start at the very top with Horowitz (Sony/Warner Classics), Rosenthal (APR) or, best of all, Ignacy Friedman pre-War on Naxos. 

Having written recently at length on this site about Glenn Gould’s second Sony recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations I hesitated whether to feature the same work again so soon afterwards, but the appearance of no less than four new (very different) sets of the work posed a challenge that I just couldn’t resist. First up is the Turkish composer-pianist Fazil Say (Warner Classics 5054197233968, c£12.75 released 25th November) whose Gouldian attributes start with one that few will want, a tendency to hum while playing. Otherwise Fay’s Goldbergs are nimble (try the lightning-quick 5th Variation on track 6), rhythmically alert and awash with colour. In terms of poetry there’s plenty to savour in that respect too, not least the contrapuntal 9th Variation (track 10), which ranges from ethereal hush to boldness, and, best of all, the celebrated ‘Black Pearl’ of the set, No. 25 (track 26) which Say treats to an emotional flight where breathing is virtually suspended and which, in terms of the music, borders on sounding like Chopin. If there’s one track to play to friends who claim to have an allergy to Bach, then this is it. Beyond the ‘Black Pearl’ there’s the (up-and-out-to-the-pub-lads-and-ladies) variation 30 (track 31), a merry quodlibet that welcomes one and all before the return of the exquisite aria. Definitely one for the ‘Goldbergs’ wants list, this, with all repeats intact, as they are on the three versions briefly discussed below. 

The German pianist Burkhard Schliessmann (Divine Art 5-channel Super Audio DDC 25754, 2 cds, c£12.49 – £22.49) offers another thoughtful performance (I was at times reminded of Rosalyn Tureck) but there are shortcomings, the most conspicuous being a tendency to sound laboured and effortful, as in Variation 5 (disc 1, track 6) and the ‘Ouverture’ or Variation 16 on the first track of disc 2 whereas the Quodlibet is just plain dull. One for the ‘Goldbergs completist’ I’d say, the Bach collector who wants to savour each point that a given interpreter makes, and Schliessmann does have points to make. 

Reviewing the Hungarian pianist Klára Würtz’s Goldberg Variations (Piano Classics PCL10230, c£16.00) in great detail for Gramophone in May I wrote ‘I’ve heard a handful of Goldbergs that are as good as this (Beatrice Rana, for one – Warner Classics) but none that are better’ and I’d stick by that assessment. Repeats occasionally add extra emphases (Variation 4, track 5). There are Gouldian points of style too (the rhythmic precision of Variation 8, on track 9). Dialogue is closely knit, trills are immaculate, rubato relatively subtle while the ‘Black Pearl’ Variation dons, as I wrote in Gramophone, ‘Beethovenian depth but without the least suggestion of pretention.’ I also wrote, while flying on the wings of genuine enthusiasm, that this is great piano playing that forges a direct route to the soul with no tiresome diversions along the way. Worth every penny I’d say, and the sound quality is excellent.

Which leaves the young Chinese pianist Tianqi Du (naïve V 7566, 2 cds, c£13.50, due for release 4thNovember), something of a recreative genius who also adopts distant Gouldian vocalisations, and who in effect offers us two Goldbergs, one with the first statement of each variation, then another via the repeats, which are always quite different. Those differences are achieved through Du’s embellishments, use of ornaments, varied use of the pedal, stressed inner voices, altered emphases, switching from moderately struck chords to a bullish staccato (variation 8, disc 1, track 9). Like Würtz Du plies immaculate trills, reversing the trend from dynamic moderation to powerhouse projection in Variation 10 (track 11). This superbly engineered set of the Goldbergs held my attention for the duration, even through a ‘Black Pearl’ that plays for near-on eleven minutes (Würtz stretches merely to eight, Say to six), a chaste, desolate, almost disembodied reading, a solitary midnight tryst quite unlike anyone else’s. With Du even the Aria’s final return is quite different to its initial statements at the start of the work. So if perchance anyone is still asking the question ‘is there life to the Goldberg Variations on piano after Glenn Gould?’ the answer is a definite, unequivocal ‘yes’! Some of the best proof is here. Pressed to choose priorities I’d go for Würtz and Du with Say as a good third choice, if you can stretch to him.

And so the to a master if yore, Walter Gieseking, a giant both physically and as a musician, whose Complete Graphophone Recordings (The Complete Warner Classics Edition), 0190296245595, 48cds, will be available as from 11th November [no price is available at the time of writing] and his Debussy The First Columbia recordings, APR 6040, 2 cds, c£13.48 are available now. More miraculous pianism awaits the as yet uninitiated, especially when it comes to the solo piano music of Mozart, Beethoven, Debussy and Brahms. But before that a clarifying note about Gieseking’s activities in wartime. Warner’s mostly excellent annotator Laurent Muraro tells us that after the Second World War Gieseking ‘had to face charges of having collaborated with the Nazis’. But hold on, was he acquitted, or wasn’t he? We’re not really told, only that there are some recorded gems from the period (including the Schumann Concerto under Karl Böhm and Bach’s Italian Concerto, both included in the Warners set). But to clarify, Artur Rubinstein once revealed Gieseking’s confession, and here I quote, that “I am a committed Nazi. Hitler is saving our country.” Also, he performed in front of Nazi cultural organizations such as the NS Kulturgemeinde and “expressed a desire to play for the Führer”.  On the other hand, it was that same Walter Gieseking who after the war taught the Polish Jewish pianist Marian Filar (who had survived as a worker on the German railroad) for five years without payment. ‘You have already paid enough’ was his compassionate rationale. Along with a number of other German artists, although he was blacklisted during the initial post-war period, by January 1947 he had been cleared by the U.S. military government, enabling him to resume his international career. 

And that career included making numerous recordings, mostly for the company previously known as Columbia Records and is now known as Warner Classics. The Graphophone was the name and trademark of an improved version of the phonograph and I’m not sure why it is used here, as the vast majority of Gieseking’s records – whether shellac 78s (10” and 12”), or 7” vinyl 45s and LPs (10” and 12”) – appeared principally under the Columbia imprint, both here in the UK and in America. But no matter, it’s nice to see the quaint old word being used again.

Gieseking’s sizeable discography, which in terms of Warner Classics starts in the ‘horn gramophone’ era of 1923 and ends with the dawning of stereo in 1955, is dominated by the music of Debussy, Beethoven and Mozart. A comprehensive survey would be impossible given the dictates of space and time, but of particular value is Gieseking’s 1951 set of Debussy’s complete Préludes (both books), never before released on CD. He was always a majestic exponent of the tenth Prélude, ‘La cathédrale engloutie’, (The Engulfed Cahedral), hidden in sea water and the mystery of rumour until it majestically rises from amidst the waves. Many have told the tale, and told it beautifully, including Michelangeli, Cortot and Krystian Zimerman, but that humbling sense of awe is uniquely Gieseking’s province. ‘Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest’ (What the west wind saw) is easily as wind-swept as the stormy finale of La Mer, whichever recording you choose (there are three, one pre-war, and two post-war) and how lovely to be confronted with the warming spectre of ‘La fille aux cheveux de lin’ (The Girl with the Flaxen Hair) straight afterwards, both extremes of mood handled by Gieseking with his usual mastery of touch and tone.

Gieseking only ever recorded the Second book of Préludes twice for UK Columbia, whereas in 1939 he cut the music for American Columbia, bringing the total of three each for both books. The APR CD set fills in where Warners for copyright reasons couldn’t oblige. Comparing the 1939 version of ‘Feux d’artifice’ (Fireworks) with the well-known taping that closes the 1954 set witnesses a lighter touch pre-war but to be honest there isn’t much in it. APR also offer us contemporaneous versions of the two Arabesques and the Réverie, all in fine transfers. The excellent booklet note by Frank. R. Latino prints the quote used by me at the head of this review, for which many thanks.

While Gieseking covered virtually all of Mozart’s and Debussy’s piano music he fell somewhat short of completing his projected complete Beethoven sonata cycle but what we do have is mostly marvellous, with uplifting versions of Nos. 30 and 31 and a version of Op. 31 No. 3 ‘The Hunt’ that sounds like the work of a much younger man, especially the cantering finale. Beethoven concertos also come off well, gaining in flexibility with the passing years, especially the ‘Emperor’, three times represented, the earliest under Bruno Walter in 1934, then under Karajan in 1951 and lastly under Alceo Galliera in 1955 (in stereo), the slow movement coming off best in ’55, especially the exquisite opening which Gieseking phrases with poetic flexibility. The finest of the Mozart concerto recordings are under Hans Rosbaud, a dramatic force that Gieseking seems to chime with, especially No. 9 in E flat ‘Jeunehomme’ (such a wonderful slow movement) and the great 20th Concerto in D minor. The concertos with Karajan while excellent pianistically are rather soft-soaped in terms of the Philharmonia’s contribution. Mozart’s solo works include countless shorter pieces as well as the usual run of sonatas and there are superb performance of Brahms’s solo pieces and, especially, Grieg’s ‘Lyric Pieces’ which have no credible rivals save perhaps for Emil Gilels. The way Gieseking plays the ‘Melody’ Op. 47 No. 3 will break your heart. By contrast I sense that his overcast performances of selected Mendelssohn ‘Songs without Words’ were a well-meaning gesture of good will, covering music that he was forbidden to play for so many years. For much of the time he sounds as if he’s sight-reading, with one or two exceptions.

So much more besides. Listening to this set has certainly revitalised my interest in pianist whose recordings so often failed to hold my interest. My fault entirely I’d say: I wasn’t attentive enough, but now I will be. The transfers are in the main uniformly excellent. 

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