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November 6, 2009

Blast from the Past: Walter Gieseking

This week's trip down Memory Lane leads to Walter Gieseking (Nov. 5, 1895 -- Oct. 26, 1956), a pianist who had an exquisite sense of style that served him in a substantial repertoire. As can be said of all the true keyboard giants, Gieseking elevated the pianistic art. It's exceedingly rare to hear playing with so much elegance and incisiveness today, such judicious rubato and wealth of tone color.

For this blast from the past, I chose some of the German-born pianist's superbly phrased Bach and the opening movement of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 -- Gieseking's imaginative and moving performance of that concerto with Willem Mengelberg conducting is one of my all-time faves:

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:52 AM | | Comments (4)


Geseking is interesting, but, where is your review for the BSO's Mozart and Mahler concert?
You talk about his "elegance and incisiveness today, such judicious rubato and wealth of tone color."
This is why he's known best for his Debussy recordings.

The BSO review will be posted later today. I dared to take Friday and Saturday off (the first two days in a row I've had off since early September). And the reason I didn't post Debussy with Giseking is precisely because, as you point out, that's what he's best known for. TS

Since you posted about both Gieseking and Cortot, here's, from the resident Enescu nut, a story with Enescu and either Gieseking and Cortot (I say either because I heard it on both versions: Enescu / Gieseking and Enescu / Cortot; my guess would be Cortot because Enescu was a long time friend with him, though Enescu did work a few times with Gieseking as well.)

So here's the story:

For whatever reason Enescu owned something to a big shot, so reluctantly agreed to accompany his son, a wannabe violinist, in a recital. Just when the recital was about to begin, Cortot/Gieseking appears. Since it's been a while that he hasn't seen Enescu, Cortot/Gieseking offers to turn the pages. The public couldn't believe their eyes: is this indeed Cortot / Gieseking who turns the pages? Well, yes.

The reviews appear the next day in the press: "yesterday's recital was turned upside down. The gentleman who turned the pages should have played the piano. The gentleman who played the piano should have played the violin. And the gentleman who played the violin should have turned the pages!"

Thanks. I love that story, which I first heard in the Cortot version, told by one of the panelists on a British radio show (I think it that program was called "My Music" or something like that). Thanks again. TIM

I didn't know the recording of the Rachmaninov existed. Fantastic. When was it made (before 1943 I assume) and is it available? Since Cortot has come up, another "blast from the past" to post would be the Cortot, Thibaud, Casals Beethoven (archduke) and Schubert (Bflat major) trios from 1928 and 1926 respectively. I can't imagine what it must of been like to be in a room with those three playing.

Glad you liked the Rachmaninoff, which was recorded in 1940 along the the Concerto No. 3. Both are very distinctive and, to me, exciting, performances in so many ways. And thanks for the chamber music suggestion -- an amazing combo of talent, to be sure. TIM.

As a boy, Gieseking was my favorite pianist. Heard him play this Rachmaninoff with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra (mostly the L.A. Phil hired for the summer) but forgot the conductor, could have been Wallenstein. It was superb. He even played encores. I remember the program notes stated Gieseking had in his memory over 300 concerti and over 5000 solo works! Very gracious stage manner.

Thanks for sharing the memories. TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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