Gaspard de la Nuit Recorded by Walter Gieseking

Gaspard de la Nuit recorded by Walter Gieseking.

There are a very few recordings that truly astonish me. When I, at the age of 14, first saw an LP of Walter Gieseking performing Maurice Ravel, it shocked me. He was known for performing Mozart and Beethoven. To see him tackling Ravel was a sort of revelation to me. How excited I was to find this incredible recording at The New York Public Library in Lincoln Center. On that LP, Mr. Gieseking performed several pieces of Ravel. The one that stood out for me was Gaspard de la Nuit recorded in 1937.

I never particularly liked Maurice Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit. I always thought, before this recording, that the piece was boring. As it turned out, the only reason I did not like this composition was that the many recordings I listened to misinterpreted the very essence of this work. Hearing a slow rendition of this piece is like pulling teeth. You do not want a doctor to slowly sift through each tooth and try to figure out which one needs to be parted with. This is the reason why I never liked the composition. That is until I heard this recording.

Gaspard de la Nuit was written by Maurice Ravel in 1908. It has three movements: Ondine, Le Gibet, and Scarbo. This suite was based on a poem by Aloysius Bertrand.

From the very first moment of Ondine, Walter Gieseking totally gets Gaspard de la Nuit. His tempo is magnificent, a sort of lighting with rubato. Picture a lightning hitting not in one tempo, but being wavy attack strong enough to move to a different direction while striking. That is what I picture in this movement. While keeping a tender care for the romantic theme, Mr. Gieseking achieves tender pianist strokes understanding the necessary rubato in Ravel’s composition. Walter could understand this deeply due to the fact that he was a composer as well.

His incredible, wavy build up from 2:39 until the reserved passionate heights of 3:02 is a lesson on how to build strength from within. It is not always necessary to build an important part of a composition through brute force. Thinking ahead and being able to have enough pianistic strength to not go overboard in this place astonished me then and still does today. Walter builds as if the potential of a loud Brahms Second Piano Concerto passage, only to keep that tamed enough for the real outburst at 4:24. Then softly, coming back to a seemingly simple passage, Mr. Gieseking brings such an optimistic end, as if the sun has risen through this recording. This tempo takes guts, but it also paints the true picture of Gaspard.

Usually performed in a morose, slow tempo, Mr. Gieseking takes the second piece, Le Gibet, and shows us a methodical driving force behind his playing. The main idea of this piece can be enough to be sad. So, making it even more pedantic and depressing is not the way to go. Hearing Mr. Gieseking making a point of not taking too long on this movement is what really separates him with most recordings done by other pianists.

The third movement, Scarbo, has the fiery temperament necessary after such a sad Le Gibet. None other performer has been able to magnificently assess the situation between the two movements as Mr. Gieseking did. He toys with the tempo in this movement, as if dancing many dances. Extremely difficult passages consume the pianist, but Walter does not budge, giving us a great lesson in pianistic variety. That variety truly stays inside. His ability to go all in at around the 7 minute mark and then be able to give us a “laughing” type of ending truly shows me the true genius of Ravel and Gieseking.

Check out my article about Zoltan Kocsis performing Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto.

Check out my choices of Classical Music.