Pianist Of Luminous Delicacy
German pianist whose defining characteristics -- a rare photographic and aural memory that allowed him to memorize whole scores away from the piano; a sublime chemistry in his playing of Debussy; and an impetuous virtuosity in performing the difficult concertos of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff -- mark Gieseking as one of the great pianists the world has known. To capture the essence of French Romantic composers Claude Debussy (1862 - 1918) and Maurice Ravel (1875 - 1937), the pianist must perform with a sensitive touch and acute ear; indeed, Gieseking's aural sensitivity and pedal technique contributed to the subtlest gradations of tone and colour.
Born in Lyons, France (November 5, 1895) to a renowned doctor and entomologist, much of his early life was spent in travels through Italy and southern France. At 16, Gieseking recieved tuition to attend to attend the elite Hanover Conservatory where he worked under Karl Leimer from 1911-1913. Though briefly drafted in 1916, he avoided combat by participating in the regimental band.
Prior to his 1920 debut in Berlin, he accomplished the promising feat of playing a complete cycle of Beethoven sonatas. The success of the Berlin debut made possible a series of seven concerts which proved his early fluency in Debussy and Ravel. The bohemian ambience of Berlin in the 1920's nurtured the musical talents of the young man; the city's embrace of the avant-garde led to Gieseking's advocacy of the contemporary compositions of Schoenberg, Ferruccio Busoni (1866 - 1924), Paul Hindemith (1895 - 1963), Karol Szymanowski (1882 - 1937), and Hans Pfitzner (1869 - 1949).
Demand for his rare talent foresaw debuts in London (1923, Pfitzner's piano concerto), New York (1926 Aeolian Hall
, Hindemith), and Paris (1928, Busoni). After World War II, Gieseking's reputation was marred by an unfortunate--and incorrect--association with the Nazi
party. The resultant blacklist prevented further concerts in the United States, though international admiration for his undeniable skill opened his reception in Tokyo
,Rio de Janeiro
, Mexico City
, and Milan
. Cleared of Nazi association by an Allied court in the early 1950's, he returned to New York City in 1955 with triumphant vigor
, playing an all-Debussy program at Carnegie Hall.
As an astute educator -- he taught a series of masterclasses at the Musikhochschule in Saarbrucken, Germany in 1954 -- he focused his attention to the trancendence of pianistic challenges that result from mental, rather than physical, difficulty. He passed away in London, England, October 26, 1956.
Admirers of classical music are blessed today with a strong reissue programme which makes available historically important and sonically pristine recordings from the early 20th century. "The Great Pianists of the 20th Century Series" by Polygram Records has released (1999) a two volume series of Gieseking's recordings. To hear his unparalled interpretations of Ravel, Debussy, and Beethoven, look into purchasing -- or better yet, checking out from the library -- volume two of the set (Polygram 456790). It includes Debussy's Estampes and Preludes cycle (both books); Mozart's Sonata #14; Beethoven's Waldstein, Appassionata Sonatas; and Ravel's haunting Gaspard de la Nuit. Incredible.
Liner notes to Great Pianists of the 20th Century: Walter Gieseking, #2 (Polygram 456790).
Grove Dictionary of Music. Oxford, 2001.