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I HAVE TWO COPIES OF THIS recording on my shelf, under different labels and with different but similar photographs that seem to have come from a common source. The colour in the Everest issue is, er, unreal. At any rate, hats off to Gieseking’s tailor.

The Saga copy dates from 1971 and states that the label’s address is 326 Kensal Road, London W10, while also usefully revealing that the miniature score of the music is Lea Pocket Score No 20. The programme notes are by Frederick Youens, a Saga regular. I bought the record in Dundee, at Boots, for 95p in the 1970s, in the days when budget LPs could be found in odd places, presented like seaside postcards on rotating stands.

The Everest copy, meanwhile, has an altogether tougher sleeve, with that ghoulish colour, and the umlauts are missing in the title. The company’s address has an altogether different resonance: 10920 Wilshire Blvd, Suite 410, Los Angeles, 90024.

The playing is wonderful or awful, depending on your measuring stick. I love it. Those who have had the luck to hear the likes of Arcadi Volodos delivering the Op  17 Fantasy with passion and splassion will testify that analytical clarity has not completely infected contemporary Schumann playing, but it is still rare enough. For all his phenomenal gifts at the keyboard – and legendary speed and capacity of memory – Gieseking was never interested in a crystalline technique as a priority. My own feeling is that he is happiest in music where there is somehow a case for ‘not giving a damn’. From a surprisingly long discography, my own specially treasured Gieseking renderings are the Schubert Impromptus, with the then unusual late three Klavierstücke (there, too, he lets go like a lad escaping school). On the other hand, I’m afraid to say that his supposedly legendary sets of Mozart and Debussy, for instance, don’t collar me in the same way.

In the Klavierstücke, he shows how he can bundle momentum; and in the kaleidoscopic Davidsbündlertänze, he despatches Schumann’s off-hand fluffing like a sweaty tennis champion throwing a towel back to a ball boy. He is majesterially rich in expressing the there-you-have-its, may-as-wells and so forth in this music, showing a perfect understanding of the cut of Schumann’s cloth.

The quality of the sound is not great. A side note announces that it ‘is not up to the very best of today’s standards’, but really, that’s irrelevant. I like the way it sounds like a piano being played at home in a dining room furnished with great curtains and thick carpets; in other words, you can just imagine Schumann watching the performance in his flourishing shirt sleeves, a beaker of Mosel on the dashboard.

The important qualities in Gieseking’s playing are the tickling mischief of rhythm and dynamics; the snatchy joy and tugging melancholy; the puffed-up toy-soldier bravado; and the weepy wistfulness. Here, all of these qualities come together to illustrate exactly why we adore Schumann’s impossibly elusive music. There is no heavy-handedness: emphasis in the left hand, if anything, benefits from the muzzy recording quality, which prevents it from resembling a firing squad. In these cover photographs, Gieseking looks like old Rodin relishing a mass of putty, yet his diction – a crucial notion if you are to master Schumann – has the seductive spring of Ronald Colman. The cover remarks that the quality of Gieseking’s playing ‘shines through such trifling technical blemishes as there are’ – which is quite true, and enough to make me turn the record back over and play it again and again.

JONATHAN BROWN Read the full review on Agora Classica


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