The art of gentle attack

Radio 3 round-up
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The Independent Culture
Last Friday, in the regular Radio 3 series, Mining the Archive, Susan Sharpe got Peter Donohoe to talk about Walter Gieseking, the legendary interpreter of Debussy's piano music, and introduced excerpts from his two surviving BBC recordings. Gieseking was born 100 years ago and died in 1956, just before his 61st birthday. Donohoe pointed out that the BBC caught this physical and intellectual giant in his decline - an early one, because Gieseking boasted that he didn't need to practise. Donohoe suggested that such naturally, if superhumanly, gifted musicians sometimes don't know how to practise.

What Donohoe, and many others, admired about Gieseking was his wonderful sound - or, as people used to call it, "touch". Donohoe praised him for realising that the piano is a percussion instrument, although most teachers tell you to make it sing. All percussionists - and Donohoe used to be one - try to make their instruments sound non-percussive, and listen for the resonance. The key to Gieseking's sound was his very gentle attack.

The most telling illustration was not so much in the middle movement of Ravel's Sonatine, Debussy's Suite bergamasque or Reflets dans l'eau - the sort of music for which Gieseking was particularly celebrated - because most pianists at least try to make it sound melting and non-percussive. It was in Schumann's Kreisleriana, where you might have expected something different. Here, the quality of Gieseking's attack - at the opposite end of the spectrum from Horowitz's - was immediately apparent.

It was good to hear Donohoe admit the shortcomings of Gieseking's performance, recorded in 1953 - notably the extreme tempi, both fast and slow. He said that anyone who didn't already know the first movement could hardly be expected to follow what Gieseking was playing. But if, as Donohoe claimed, Gieseking's mind was travelling faster than his fingers could manage, he must have been in bad shape, because in simple digital terms, Kreisleriana is not so very hard. This was simply a negligent performance, and devoid of phrasing.

William Kapell died, in a plane crash, three years before Gieseking. He was 31. Kapell never played in Britain, but Annette Morreau, producer- presenter of three Saturday afternoon programmes in the series Vintage Years (and a regular contributor to these pages), described him as "the first native-trained American virtuoso pianist of world class". Born 12 years before Van Cliburn, that other good-looking American hero, Kapell was, at least on the evidence of the programme, a more interesting interpreter. And what a technique! Unlike Gieseking, he practised obsessively, and in Rachmaninov's Paganini Rhapsody and Second Piano Concerto, he strove to surpass even the composer's brilliance.

Recordings of both works, the Rhapsody with the ruthless Fritz Reiner conducting, sounded truly impregnable. Yet if Kapell's machine-gun fire of staggered chords and rapid articulation sometimes sounded as if he set out to prove that he could make more detail explicit than any pianist before him, his touch was never clattering, but firmly rounded. In lyrical passages, he also showed a strongly directed sense of line. He played Schubert's Impromptu in A flat with real warmth, and one of the most rewarding discoveries was a radio recording of him partnering the radiant, fresh- voiced soprano Maria Stader in four songs by Schubert - gloriously unfussy performances.

One of Radio 3's happiest finds in recent years is Christopher Page, director of Gothic Voices and a presenter who sounds listener-friendly, not because he's trying, but because he's in his element. In Spirit of the Age on Sunday afternoon, he uncovered the mysteries of the antiphon Salve Regina, which could, some believed, exorcise the Devil. Christopher Page dug out an early 15th-century manuscript at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, and confided, with all the excitement of a child disembowelling a Christmas stocking, its stories about the miracles associated with the Virgin Mary. The plainchant was the springboard for many elaborate polyphonic settings, and one of the richest, heard in the programme, was by William Cornyshe, who died in 1523. Its long trailing lines were characteristic of early Tudor music, but it was also strongly orchestrated, both in terms of texture and emotion, reserving the higher voices for the most powerful effects.