Arbiter Records 103

Brahms works for Piano: Walter Gieseking

Track List: Walter Gieseking plays Brahms

Recorded 1939-1956. Our download version contains an additional bonus track.

  1. Brahms Piano Concerto no. 2: I. Allegro non troppo 15:57
  2. Brahms Piano Concerto no. 2: II. Allegro appassionato 07:56
  3. Brahms Piano Sonata op. 5: I Allegro maestoso 07:29
  4. Brahms Piano Sonata op. 5: II Andante espressivo 10:48
  5. Brahms Piano Sonata op. 5: III Scherzo allegro energetico 03:57
  6. Brahms Piano Sonata op. 5: IV Intermezzo andante molto 02:57
  7. Brahms Piano Sonata op. 5: V Allegro moderato ma rubato 06:24
  8. Brahms: Intermezzo op. 76 no. 3 in A flat 01:45
  9. Brahms: Intermezzo op. 76 no. 4 in B flat 02:17
  10. Brahms: Intermezzo op. 116 no. 4 in E 03:55
  11. Brahms: Intermezzo op. 118 no. 6 in E flat minor 04:30
  12. Brahms: Intermezzo op. 119 no. 2 in E minor 04:17
  13. Brahms: Capriccio op. 76 no. 2 in B minor 03:07
  14. bonus download track: Poulenc Movements perpetuels

Brahms’ s music, as heard in performance over the last fifty years, has been so tragically devitalized as to consign it to a circle of musical hell. His musical language is at once complex and earthy. Unfortunately, this quality is all too often obscured through the failure of many performers to capture the essence of each work and its relation to Brahms’s compositional voice. Stylistically, Brahms’s mindset owes much to Schumann. From this as a point of departure, he achieved an innovative use of rhythm in the plastic shaping of varied meters into a rhythmic unity. Coloring this infrastructure is his profound understanding and masterful implementation of Hungarian and Gypsy idioms, his deep immersion into early and Baroque practices, and a heartfelt identification with German folk music.

With some notable exceptions, the Brahms inflicted on modern ears is vastly remote from the performances that pleased Brahms. There is a great authenticity in the playing of violinist Joseph Joachim and pianists Etelka Freund, Carl Friedberg, Ilona Eibenschutz, and Adelina de Lara. All of these performers had been coached by the composer and all left recordings of his music: remarkably, they share stylistic practices. Today the Brahmsian exuberance is lowered into a narrow art posing as something sacrosanct or “poetic”. Deprived of its humanity and forced onto the altar of Kitsch, this bogus profundity reduces his message into an irrelevant and sterile soliloquy.

The artistry of performers of the past, too, is often misjudged through prevailing stereotypes and cliches. Walter Gieseking (1895-1956) was accorded several: that he was primarily a Debussy and Ravel specialist who sight-read his way through Mozart; that he played better before 1945 than afterward, when he supposedly became emotionally detached from the music; that he was more concerned with tonal plateaus rather than the musical structure. Several of his later commercial recordings were made under the trying conditions of having to complete two or three albums in two days’ time, as the record company wished to exploit Gieseking’s stamina and technical precision. While the results of these laboratory efforts bear little resemblance to his live post-war performances, which were fully engaged with the music, they are commonly upheld as confirming signs of musical decline. One must cautiously approach studio performances that claim to represent an artist whose career was spent primarily before the public. The playing on this release of newly discovered and rare recordings easily refutes such fictions. Moreover, it displays a neglected side of Brahms: how in his music lies both struggle and repose on a heroic scale.

Gieseking’s fundamental approach to music derives from his being an anomaly. Gifted with a formidable ability for analysis and aided by a photographic memory, he had little formal education and was essentially self-taught. The two great passions in his life, lepidoptery and music, led to the discovery of two butterfly genera and the development of a pathbreaking approach to the entire piano literature, laboring to gain a close understanding of the composer’s craft. Such was the basis of his essay, “Intuition and Musical Authority as Basis of Interpretation”. Gieseking wrote:

“The attention which is required by daily (especially complicated) work does not suffice to obtain the heightened concentration which is the prerequisite for effective artistic work. Only the utmost exertion of all the strength of thinking and feeling and complete exclusion of all thoughts that do not belong to the work to be interpreted makes it possible to intensify the entire receptivity to the degree which the interpreter must achieve in order to convey to his audience strong, artistic impressions.

“I want to stress, however, that this intensity of expression is not synonymous with romantic emotional effusion. While the latter may easily lead to formal distortion and destruction, an intensively heightened empathy will help essentially to achieve a clear presentation of the form of a work, both for the strict form of a classical work and for the free forms of romantic works. In perpetually changing ways the interpreter has to adjust his expressive desires to those of the composer, and he has to find for each of the great masters the special type of interpretation that is suited to the work. Whoever plays a Mozart sonata the same way as a Brahms work or Liszt piece has obviously not recognized the principles of good interpretation.” [Walter Gieseking. So Wurde Ich Pianist . Wiesbaden, 1975.]

It is well remembered that Gieseking’s performances broadly covered the masterworks written from Bach’s time up to Debussy and Ravel. But we should also be aware of the abundance of 20th-century works he programmed. Dean Elder, who studied with the pianist, has assembled a formidable list of composers often found in Gieseking’s recitals:

Albeniz, Busoni, Casella, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Falla, Faure, H·ba, Hindemith, Korngold, Krenek, MacDowell, Marx, Miaskovsky, Niemann, Pfitzner, Piston, Poulenc, Rachmaninoff, Reger, Samazeuilh, Schoenberg, Schreker, Schulhoff, Scott, Scriabin, Stravinsky, Szymanowski, Tansman, Toch, Trapp, Villa-Lobos, and Weismann.

The recording of the B-flat Piano Concerto’s first two movements is all that survives of this performance; it is not known if the entire work had been aired. The tapes, in remarkably vivid sound, had languished for nearly half a century in an East Berlin studio until the demolition of the Berlin Wall. A Milanese collector owns an inaccessible tape of a broadcast of the entire Concerto (from Rome in 1952), but in poor sound, containing audio gaps, and with an inadequate orchestra.

The Capriccio , recorded at a recital in Seattle, Washington only a few months before Gieseking’s sudden death in 1956 is at the musical level of his 1939 New York recordings of the Intermezzi. We are fortunate that at this very time his label had begun experimenting with vinyl pressings. Gieseking personally saved his vinyl test copies; the Intermezzi , Op. 116, no.4 and Op.118, no.6, were transferred from these same discs which possess the remarkably clear piano tone of later tape recordings. We at Arbiter are deeply grateful to Walter Gieseking’s family for granting access to their archives and for permission to publish these vital and forgotten performances.

Allan Evans ©1996