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L’Art de Paul van Kempen – Vol 1
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Les Préludes* [15’38”]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No 8 in F major** [24’24”]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847) Overture: The Hebrides*** [8’59”]
Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Overture: William Tell**** [12’29”]
Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Overture: Benvenuto Cellini***** [10’05”]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major ****** [45’05”]
Adrian Aeschbacher (piano)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Paul van Kempen
Recorded: * 22 December 1937; ** 7 April, 4 October 1940; *** 26-28 May 1951; **** 5 July 1951; ***** 6 July 1951;****** 14-21 January 1952. ADD
TAHRA TAH 512-513 [61’27 + 55’12”]



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The Dutch conductor, Paul van Kempen (1893-1955) had a fairly short podium career. His life as a professional musician began at the age of seventeen, when he joined the first violin section of Mengelberg’s Concertgebouw Orchestra. A number of orchestral posts in Germany followed but it was not until he was in his thirties that he began to conduct. Fairly early in his podium career he was offered the conductorship of the Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra in 1934. He stayed with them until 1942 when he succeeded Karajan as Generalmusikdirektor in Aachen. Returning to his native Holland after the Second World War he had to wait until 1949 to secure another permanent post, this time as conductor of the orchestra of Radio Hilversum, a post he held until his death. He was concurrently Generalmusikdirektor in Bremen from 1953.

Perhaps he might have made a greater impact had his career not coincided with the war and had he not elected to remain in Germany for the duration. One suspects that his associations with Germany worked against him in Holland in the immediate aftermath of the war. As is evident from the brief biographical details above he never led a major orchestra though he did make a number of commercial recordings, mainly for Philips, with the Concertgebouw Orchestra after the war and also with the Berlin Philharmonic. It is his studio relationship with the latter orchestra that is represented on this Tahra set.

The shorter pieces show him at his best here, I think. I’m afraid I can never get very excited by Les Préludes, which always seems to me to be a pretty empty creation. It gets a civilised reading from van Kempen and the BPO plays pretty well for him. Sample the sweet violins at 9’23”, though there’s a fairly prominent cracked note in the horns a second later. The Hebrides overture gets a good performance. The opening paragraphs are nicely shaped, with some affection, though there’s no undue lingering. Later on van Kempen whips up a pretty energetic storm. I also liked his account of the overture to Benvenuto Cellini. This has flair and life and when the allegro section is reached the music fizzes nicely.

I was less enamoured of his Beethoven. The reading of the first movement is clean and is given at a steady pace. Whilst this steadiness ensures clarity the music really needs more fire and urgency than is on display here. The middle movements are a trifle staid though the finale does have welcome drive and purpose. All in all this isn’t an especially memorable account of Beethoven’s most energetic and good-humoured symphony.

I had never heard of Adrian Aeschbacher, the soloist in the Brahms concerto and Tahra’s note, disappointingly, tells us absolutely nothing about him. I believe he was a Swiss pianist, born in 1912 but beyond that information on him is sparse. It appears that he recorded this same Brahms concerto with Furtwängler (Music and Arts CD-941). He plays well and van Kempen is an attentive accompanist. I liked the buoyant second movement and Aeschbacher is sensitive in the gorgeous slow movement  - where he is well supported by the BPO’s principal cellist – casting Brahms’s lyrical spell effectively. The finale is light on its feet and trips along nicely. However, the performance is hobbled by the recorded sound. It’s a rather boxy recording, especially of the piano, and climaxes are constricted with the orchestra recessed too much behind the piano. Worst of all there are pretty regular fluctuations in pitch, which impart a definite sense of aural queasiness. All this, I assume, is the result of flaws in the original source material since the other transfers in the set are quite good. Just to be sure I wasn’t being hypercritical I got down the Testament transfer of Solomon’s 1947 HMV recording (SBT 1042). Though the recording was made four years earlier than this Aeschbacher version the sound is incomparably better and the pitch remains constant. Sadly, listening to Solomon also confirmed that his magisterial version is much superior to that by Aeschbacher. Solomon digs deeper and reveals more about Brahms than is vouchsafed here. In short, the van Kempen/Aeschbacher traversal is good but not especially memorable.

And that verdict really applies to the whole set, I fear. The performances are solid, musicianly and well prepared but they lack that last bit of distinction that separates the great performances from the good ones. This is a useful set, not without interest, but I must be honest and say that it would not be a priority purchase for me.

John Quinn





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