Born: November 5, 1895 – Lyons, France
Died: October 26, 1956 – London, England
The celebrated French-German pianist, Walter (Wilhelm) Gieseking, was largely self-taught as a pianist. He was born in France, and travelled with his family (his father was a distinguished doctor and entomologist) in France and Italy until he enrolled at the Hannover Conservatory, where he came under the tutelage of Karl Leimer, graduating in 1916.
In 1912 (or 1915) Walter Gieseking made his debut in Hannover. He was drafted into the German army in 1916, but escaped combat by performing in his regimental band. After the War, he undertook the life of a working musician, accompanying singers and instrumentalists, playing in chamber music ensembles, and working as an opera coach. He could hardly avoid the heady artistic atmosphere of post-war Germany, and he became an advocate of new music, playing works by Arnold Schoenberg, Ferruccio Busoni, Paul Hindemith, K. Szymanowski, and H. Pfitzner, whose Piano Concerto he premiered under Fritz Busch in 1923. From 1921 he made tours of Europe. In 1923 he made his British debut in London, his American debut at Aeolian Hall in New York in February 1926, and his debut in Paris in 1928. His debuts were highly acclaimed, with audiences and critics responding enthusiastically to Gieseking’s subtle shadings and contrapuntal clarity. After that he appeared regularly in the USA and Europe with orchestras and in solo recitals.
During the hostilities of World War II, Walter Gieseking, like many other artists, remained in Germany, and also performed sometimes in Nazi-occupied France. After the War he became the centre of political controversy when he arrived in the USA in 1949 for a concert tour; he was accused of cultural collaboration with the Nazi regime, and public protests forced the cancellation of his scheduled performances at Carnegie Hall in New York. However, he was later cleared by an Allied court in Germany and was able to resume his career in America, with the success it had formerly enjoyed. He appeared again at a Carnegie Hall recital in April 1953, and until his death continued to give numerous performances in both hemispheres.
To this activity Walter Gieseking added a heavy schedule of recording, committing to disc the complete solo piano music of Mozart and the L.v. Beethoven concertos, as well as complete sets of Debussy’s and Ravel’s piano works. At the time of his death in London, Gieseking was engaged on a project to record all the L.v. Beethoven piano sonatas. He recorded L.v. Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No 15 for HMV, had completed the first three movements and, the following day, was due to record the fourth. Sadly, he died during the night. HMV released the unfinished recording. His recordings of Debussy and Ravel are regarded as benchmarks for every subsequent performer. His recordings of Debussy’s Préludes, done in 1953 and 1955, have been re-released by EMI Classics in their “Great Recordings of the Century” collection. He was also a fine Bach interpreter and left an impressive legacy of Bach recordings (many of them from live German broadcasts).
Walter Gieseking was one of the most extraordinary pianists of his time. He is said to have been a natural and intuitive pianist. According to legend, he never practised except in his own mind. He apparently would study the score, imagine playing it, and then perform it flawlessly. His habit of spending hours in total silence as he pored over scores is said to have frustrated his wife greatly. A superb musician capable of profound interpretations of both Classical and modern scores, his dual German-French background enabled him to project with the utmost authenticity the masterpieces of both cultures. He particularly excelled in the music of Mozart, L.v. Beethoven, Schubert, and Johannes Brahms. It was with the repertoire of French masters that he became most famous. The impressionistic piano writing of C. Debussy and M. Ravel required the most sensitive touch and attention to colour and nuance, and Gieseking’s finger acuity, imaginative pedalling, and above all, preternaturally alert ear made him an ideal interpreter of this music. Nevertheless, his own repertoire ranged widely across eras and national boundaries. He was also an excellent performer of more modern works by the likes of S. Prokofiev, F. Busoni, P. Hindemith, A. Schoenberg, and the lesser-known Italian Goffredo Petrassi. He composed some chamber music and made piano transcriptions of songs by Richard Strauss. His autobiography, So Wurde ich Pianist, was published posth. in Wiesbaden (1963).