DEBUSSY Complete Piano Works – Gieseking
Certain creators and re-creators become synonymous. Beethoven and Schnabel, Chopin and Rubinstein at once spring to mind. Yet in the entire history of performance I doubt whether there has ever existed a more subtle or golden thread than that between Debussy and Gieseking. French jibes about the reduction of Debussy’s clarity to a charming but essentially decorative opalescence are little more than the bitter fruit of envy, of an exclusivity, that finds a German pianist’s supreme mastery of their greatest composer’s elusive heart and idiom hard to stomach.
Gieseking’s insight and iridescence in Debussy are so compelling and hypnotic that they prompt either a book or a blank page – an unsatisfactory state where criticism or assessment is concerned! So let me, in the limited space available, shuttle from the general to the local or particular and vice versa. First and foremost, there is Gieseking’s sonority, one of such delicacy and variety that it can complement Debussy’s witty and ironic desire to write music “for an instrument without hammers”, for a pantheistic art sufficiently suggestive to evoke and transcend the play of the elements themselves (“the wind, the sky, the sea...”). Who but Gieseking could conjure such stillness in the closing bars of “Reflets dans l’eau” (Images, Book 1)? Here the ripples move outward from the centre, a haunting and mysterious memory of former hyperactivity (dans une sonorite harmonieuse et lointaine). From Gieseking “Des pas sur la neige” (Preludes, Book 1) hints at an ultimate negation, of someone who can both poignantly and impassively regard “the nothing that is not and the nothing that is” – a true mind of winter. Lack of meticulousness seems a small price to pay for such an elemental uproar in “Ce qu’a vu le vent d’Ouest”, and Puck’s elfin pulse and chatter (pp aerian) are caught with an uncanny deftness and precision. The final Debussian magic may not lie in a literal observance of the score, in the unfailing dotting and crossing of every objective and picturesque instruction, yet it is surely the start or foundation of a great performance. Listen to the start of “Canope” (Preludes, Book 2) and you will note Gieseking’s fidelity to pianissimo, piano and hairpin decrescendo, piu piano, hairpin decrescendo and pianissimo, all within five bars, complemented by a finespun texturing of chords that penetrates to the very core of this mysterious, near minimalist utterance.
More domestically, no one (not even Cortot) has ever captured the sense in
In the seemingly slighter and evanescent early works – in Danse bohemienne, with its touch of vaudeville, Reverie and Mazurka – there is a luminous fragility and pinpoint delicacy that lift such music on to a plane that would have surely astonished Debussy himself. And here, in particular, Gieseking’s magic lies in infinitesimal shadings rather than in heavy-handed rubato or distortion. His Suite bergamasque is a true pastoral idyll with a “Clair de lune” as shimmering and entranced as any on record (listen to the section commencing tempo rubato at 1'04'' and you will hear chording balanced and textured from the top to perfection).
“Pour les tierces”, from the Etudes, may get off to a shaky start but, again, in Debussy’s final masterpiece, where pragmatism is resolved into a fantasy undreamed of even by Chopin, Gieseking’s artistry tugs at and haunts the imagination. Try “Pour les sonorites opposees”, the nodal and expressive centre of the Etudes, and you may well wonder when you have heard playing more subtly gauged or articulated, or the sort of interaction with a composer’s spirit that can make modern alternatives, by Pollini for example, seem so parsimonious by comparison.
So here is that peerless palette of colour and texture, of a light and shade used with a nonchalantly deployed but precise expertise to illuminate every facet of Debussy’s teeming and insinuating imagination. An added bonus, a 1951 performance of the Fantaisie for piano and orchestra (an ecstatic and scintillating work, played here with a life-affirming chiaroscuro) completes an incomparable set of discs. Andrew Walter’s transfers are a triumph, with an immediacy much less obvious in the originals. These records should be in every musician’s library, be they singer or conductor, violinist or pianist, etc. If