Alice Sara Ott

Alice Sara Ott
Alice Sara Ott (Photo by Ester Haase)

Monday, November 26, 2018

Claude Debussy: Préludes, Books I & II – Walter Gieseking (Audio video)

Originally recorded in 1953 and 1954 in monaural sound, Walter Gieseking's magisterial performances of Debussy's Préludes were first released on CD in 1987 as a single disc, and they have been reissued in various guises many times since. Gieseking more or less owned these pieces during his lifetime and his performances have been judged as definitive by many critics since they were first issued on LP. Some have rightfully regretted that the pianist's technique was not more polished and that these recordings were not clearer and cleaner. But few have complained about Gieseking's obvious deep affection for the music or about his poetic and evocative readings of these masterpieces. Any listener who reveres Debussy and has never heard these performances should be interested in this disc.

Source: James Leonard (

Claude Debussy (1862-1918)


♪ Préludes Book I, L.125 (1909-1910)

i Danseuses de Delphes (Dancers of Delphi). Lent et grave
ii. Voiles (Sails). Modéré
iii. Le vent dans la plaine (The wind on the plain). Animé
iv. Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir (Sound and perfume swirl in the evening air). Modéré
v. Les collines d'Anacapri (The hills of Anacapri). Très modéré
vi. Des pas sur la neige (Footprints in the snow). Triste et lente
vii. Ce qu'a vu le vent d'ouest (What the west wind saw). Animé et tumultueux
viii. La fille aux cheveux de lin (Girl with the flaxen hair). Très calme et doucement expressif
ix. La sérénade interrompue (The interrupted serenade). Modérément animé
x. La cathedrale engloutie (The sunken cathedral). Profondément calme
xi. La danse de Puck (The dance of Puck). Capricieux et légere
xii. Minstrels. Modéré

♪ Préludes Book II, L.131 (1912-1913)

i. Brouillards (Mists). Modéré, extrêmement égal et léger
ii. Feuilles mortes (Dead leaves). Lent et mélancolique
iii. La puerta del Vino (The Gateway of the Alhambra Palace). Mouvement de habanera
iv. Les fées sont d'exquises danseuses (The fairies are exquisite dancers). Rapide et léger
v. Bruyères (Heather). Calme – Doucement expressif
vi. Général Lavine – eccentric. Dans le style et le mouvement d'un Cake-Walk
vii. La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune (The terrace for moonlight audiences). Lent
viii. Ondine. Scherzando
ix. Hommage à S. Pickwick, Esq. P.P.M.P.C (inspired by Dickens: The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club). Grave
x. Canope. Très calme et doucement triste
xi. Les tierces alternées (Alternating thirds). Modérément animé
xii. Feux d'artifice (Fireworks). Modérément animé

Walter Gieseking, piano

Recorded: London, Abbey Road Studio No.3, 1953 and 1954

Mono / Digitally remastered

EMI Records 1987

(HD 1080p – Audio video)

Claude Debussy

Préludes Book I, L.125

Each of Debussy's Préludes Book I is a short but substantial work that conveys a particular mood or impression suggested by its title. Still, as musicologist Rollo Myers notes, "the pictorial element [is not] unduly stressed if stressed at all; these Préludes are pure music". In accordance with the composer's practice of assigning a title only after the completion of a work, the titles of the Préludes are placed at the foot of each, rather than at the head. The Préludes represent the pinnacle of Debussy's keyboard art; each may be rightly regarded as a miniature masterpiece.

1. Danseuses de Delphes (Dancers of Delphi): This is a slow, hypnotic, stately sarabande that utilizes multiple layers of parallel chords in unusual five-bar groupings.

2. Voiles (Sails): Whole-tone scales and pentatonic harmonies provide the musical substance of this mysterious and evocative tone poem. The spirit and character of this work recall "Jeux de vagues" (Play of waves), the second movement of La mer (1903-1905).

3. Le vent dans la plaine (The wind on the plain): Rapid figuration depicts the whirling winds, twice interrupted by sudden chordal outbursts. Much of the work's impact derives from the extreme, effective economy of its material.

4. Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir (Sound and perfume swirl in the evening air): The title of this Prélude was taken from Baudelaire's Fleurs du mal, the inspiration for this slow, waltz-like nocturne. The work makes active use of three themes, all in the same key, demanding the utmost sensitivity and imagination from the pianist.

5. Les collines d'Anacapri (The hills of Anacapri): This is a lively scherzo in tarantella rhythm, with a slower central section in imitation of Italian folk song. The piano writing is particularly colorful and brilliantly effective.

6. Des pas sur la neige (Footprints in the snow): Debussy depicts a barren winter snowscape with a plaintive, harmonically static dirge. The slow, sustained legato underpins the powerfully hypnotic atmosphere.

7. Ce qu'a vu le vent d'ouest (What the west wind saw): Rapid, sweeping arpeggios, fast alternating chord passages, and thundering tremolos characterize this brilliant, virtuosic showpiece. It is virtually an etude, fiercely aggressive and calling upon the full resources of the pianist.

8. La fille aux cheveux de lin (Girl with the flaxen hair): The title of this, one of the most familiar of the Préludes, comes from Leconte de Lisle's Scottish Song. Debussy's use of modality lends an archaic air to this charming, delicate work.

9. La sérénade interrompue (The interrupted serenade): A Spaniard wooing his sweetheart with the sounds of his voice and his guitar is thwarted by several noisy interruptions. Debussy effectively recreates a Spanish-inflected guitar sound on the keyboard, treating the interruptions with wry humor.

10. La cathedrale engloutie (The sunken cathedral): Debussy effects a striking musical depiction of the mythical submerged cathedral of Ys with "archaicisms" like modality and parallel harmonies. The work's rhythmic stasis, combined with its massive sonorities, creates an overwhelming sense of awe and grandeur.

11. La danse de Puck (The dance of Puck): Shakespeare's Puck is depicted here as a witty and capricious elf. Light, rapid figurations and sudden shifts of register and dynamics require an exceptional degree of pianistic control.

12. Minstrels: The last of the Préludes from Book I is a sardonic parody of the music heard in turn-of-the-century music halls. Crisp rhythms and "popular" harmonies punctuated by sharp dissonance anticipate elements in the music of Stravinsky and Poulenc.

Source: Steven Coburn (

Walter Gieseking signs and inscribes a musical quotation for Debussy's "Voiles"

Préludes Book II, L.131

The works in Debussy's second book of Préludes are similar in intent to those of Book I. Several of them look ahead to Debussy's later style, in which the composer's earlier impressionistic, almost Romantic poetry was supplanted by a greater concentration upon technique and neoclassical objectivity. In addition, perhaps because Debussy's style is so prone to mannerism, several of the Préludes in Book II bear strong similarities to those from the earlier set.

1. Brouillards (Mists): Quietly teeming, delicate, and atmospheric, the texture is dominated by sweeping arpeggios that require a high degree of control on the part of the pianist. Harmonically, the work is quite advanced, with a strong suggestion of polytonality.

2. Feuilles mortes (Dead Leaves): The main theme of this Prélude is so similar to that of Les sons et les parfums tournement dans l'air du soir (Sounds and Scents Mix in the Evening Air) from Book I, it seems an intentional parody. The overall mood likewise recalls that of the earlier work.

3. La puerta del Vino (The Gateway of the Alhambra Palace): One of the most effective Préludes of the set, this Spanish-inflected work has the rhythm of a habanera throughout.

4. Les fées sont d'exquises danseuses (The fairies are exquisite dancers): The wispy, delicate figuration of this work calls for extraordinary facility and lightness on the part of the pianist.

5. Bruyères (Heather): Similar in mood and style to La fille aux cheveux de lin from Book I, Bruyères, a depiction of an idyllic English landscape, is also one of the least demanding Préludes from a technical standpoint.

6. Général Lavine – eccentric: In this Prélude, Debussy portrays the famous American juggler with enormous wit, making ingenious use of incisive rhythms and sudden contrasts. Perhaps reflecting common "showbiz" origins, it is similar in mood and style to Minstrels from Book I.

7. La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune (The terrace for moonlight audiences): This subtle Prélude is based on a phrase from the French children's song "Au clair de la lune". The many artfully constructed mood changes are difficult to convey and require great sensitivity on the part of the pianist.

8. Ondine: Debussy depicts the legendary water sprite with a subtly changing atmosphere, as in the previous Prélude. Typical "water-like" arpeggiated figuration alternates with scherzando outbursts.

9. Hommage à S. Pickwick, Esq. P.P.M.P.C (inspired by Dickens: The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club): The protagonist of Dickens' novel is musically personified by imitations of whistling, echoes of an English music hall, and a quote from God Save the Queen.

10. Canope: This Prélude, similar in style and content to Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fût (And the moon descends on the ruined temple) from the second set of Images (1907), is a mournful depiction of an Egyptian burial urn.

11. Les tierces alternées (Alternating thirds): This is a brilliant study in thirds that anticipates the style of the Études (1915). Debussy achieves great effect through a subtle rise and fall of dynamics, using a minimum of musical material.

12. Feux d'artifice (Fireworks): The last of Debussy's Préludes is a musical portrait of a fireworks display over Paris. Brilliant arpeggios, trills, and rapid chord passages characterize this, the most technically challenging of the Préludes. The work comes to an effective close with a distant quote of La Marseillaise sounded over a hushed tremolo.

Source: Steven Coburn (

Walter Gieseking (1895-1956)

Gieseking's father was a distinguished German doctor. His son Walter spent the first sixteen years of his life in southern France and Italy as Gieseking senior combined the practice of medicine with his interest in entomology. Although Gieseking played the piano from the age of four, he had no proper tuition until his family moved to Hanover in 1911. Here, aged sixteen, he became a pupil of Karl Leimer at the Hanover Conservatory where he remained for three years, after which he had no further tuition. At the age of twenty Gieseking performed the complete Beethoven piano sonatas in six recitals; and although World War I interrupted the beginnings of his career, in 1920 at one of his seven recitals in Berlin that season, he played music by Debussy and Ravel, composers with whom he would be associated throughout his life. (Interestingly, Gieseking was hailed as "the new Anton Rubinstein", a title which would hardly have been applied to the Gieseking of the 1950s.) Debuts followed in London, America and Paris during the 1920s, and during the 1930s Gieseking spent much of his time touring Europe, America and South America.

Although Gieseking was in America in 1939, he decided to return to Germany at the outbreak of World War II. Because he gave many concerts in Germany during the time of the Nazi regime (and stopped playing Debussy and Ravel), Gieseking was seen to be a Nazi sympathiser although he was never a member of the Nazi Party. However, by 1947 he was playing in Paris and the following year played in London, although America was not so keen to welcome him and he was not able to return there until 1953. During these years he also played in Australia, Japan and South America. In 1946, Gieseking formed a trio with violinist Gerhard Taschner and cellist Ludwig Hoelscher and from 1947 he gave master-classes at the Musikhochschule in Saarbrücken. During 1955 Gieseking and his wife were passengers on a bus that was involved in an accident; his wife was killed and Gieseking suffered serious head injuries. Despite this, three months later he embarked on a ten-month tour of America, and in the autumn of 1956 undertook a series of recording sessions in London. He broadcast for the BBC on 29 September 1956 but died less than a month later.

Gieseking was an incredible sight-reader and had a photographic memory. He is renowned today for his interpretations of Debussy and Ravel, for his impressionistic washes of sound and colour, and particularly for his finely graded sounds from piano to the barely audible. He did, however, have a wide repertoire that included concertos by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov, piano sonatas by Scriabin, and works by Schumann, Beethoven, Mozart and Bach. Gieseking also played a great deal of contemporary music by composers such as Busoni, Hindemith, Korngold, Krenek, Poulenc, Pfitzner, Schoenberg and Stravinsky, many of whom dedicated works to him. At his London debut in October 1923 he played Bach's English Suite in D minor, Scriabin's Piano Sonata No.4 Op.30, and Schumann's Waldszenen Op.82, although a critic at the time complained that the programme, "chiefly of small movements", offered no opportunity of testing Gieseking's interpretative powers. However all the attributes admired in his recordings of Debussy and Ravel were evident back in 1923. "Mr. Gieseking's skill is great enough in some ways... and his pianissimo now and then becomes as nearly nothing as is possible to imagine... The Bach was played with perfect clarity and his tone gradations here and in the Debussy pieces were masterly."

Gieseking made acoustic recordings for the Homochord label, and early electric recordings for the Odéon group including a fine arrangement by himself of Richard Strauss's song Ständchen. During the 1930s he recorded for Columbia and from this period come fine performances of Liszt's Piano Concerto No.1 in E flat with Henry Wood and concertos by Beethoven and Grieg, all reissued on compact disc by Naxos.

His famous interpretations of Debussy and Ravel were recorded by Gieseking in the late 1930s on 78rpm discs, but it is the later recordings (on tape) that are justly renowned. Between 1951 and 1955 he recorded the complete works of Debussy and in 1956 those of Ravel. Also for EMI, in 1953 he recorded the complete solo piano music of Mozart (reissued on eight compact discs), but these recordings have not received such unanimous praise as those of French music. The criticism generally levelled at Gieseking's Mozart is that it is too finely chiselled and precise, with the pianist treating the composer as a miniaturist; and it is true that Gieseking can make Mozart's works sound like one of his butterflies pinned to a board (a hobby he inherited from his father). In September of 1956 Gieseking recorded a selection of nearly forty of Grieg's Lyric Pieces and seventeen of Mendelssohn's Lieder ohne Worte; and the previous year he recorded a chamber work, Mozart's Quintet in E flat K.452, with the Philharmonia Wind Quartet.

At the time of his death, Gieseking was also recording all the Beethoven sonatas and some Schubert for EMI. Those who think of Gieseking only in the French Impressionists should hear his hair-raising live performances of Scriabin's Piano Sonata No.5 Op.53 and Rachmaninov's Piano Concertos Nos. 2 and 3 conducted by Willem Mengelberg. The Scriabin is given an overwhelming performance, with Gieseking concentrating so much on the impetuosity, excitement and ecstasy of the work that some of the climaxes have a few dropped notes. It is a small price to pay for such an incandescent performance. The Rachmaninov concertos were recorded during live performances with the Concertgebouw Orchestra and Willem Mengelberg in 1940. As in the Scriabin live performance, Gieseking is impetuous, sometimes at the expense of accuracy, but the excitement generated by the performance is overwhelming. At the end of the third movement cadenza of the Concerto No.2, Gieseking gets so excited that he ends it with a glissando.

As an adjunct to Gieseking's famous EMI recordings of Debussy and Ravel, a disc of BBC broadcasts contains works by both these composers recorded less than a month before his death, as well as a performance of Schumann's Kreisleriana Op.16 from 1953.

Gieseking will always remain as one of the best interpreters of French Impressionistic piano music, but as a pianist and musician his range and scope was far wider, and his repertoire more comprehensive.


Walter Gieseking

More photos

See also

100th anniversary of the death of Claude Debussy – All the posts

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