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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor
Études Tableaux Op. 39
(1875-1962) transcribed by Rachmaninov
Freddy Kempf (piano)
BIS CD 1042 [67:12]


Following the acclaim of his first disc, Freddy Kempf plays Schumann, the young British pianist has now turned his attention to Rachmaninov. This is in many ways a finer disc, displaying a touch that is mercurial and a tone that gleams like a golden fleece. The sonorities are as fiery as the Phlegethon as Kempf steers a course through Rachmaninov's opulent sound-world. These are performances that float notes as gracefully as any and mix dizzying virtuosity with tempered poetry.

The Second Sonata is extremely fine, and Kempf is quite incandescent in his handling of the glittering figuration. The opening chords are volcanic, erupting with a chaotic cloak of colour that mixes vermilion's with scorched yellows. The colours do not so much collide, as coalesce, as the densely chromatic decoration moves almost laterally into passages of the most intimate beauty. This is first and foremost a kaleidoscopic interpretation, one that, whilst perhaps lacking the monumental scale that Horowitz brought to the work, seeks refuge in the lyricism of the Rachmaninov of the Second Concerto. In fact, although Kempf plays the original 1913 version one is constantly aware of him looking back farther to the beginning of the century, and the Second Concerto of 1901, rather than the more contemporaneous Third Concerto from 1909.

The restoration of the 113 bars cut for the 1931 version gives this work an homogeneity that is now easy to appreciate. The rhetoric and surging passion of the opening movement, with its rugged textures, and supremely baritonal strength (listen to Kempf at 6'01 to 6'28), are majestically drawn. The lyricism and dynamic shadings grow almost preternaturally (7'05 onwards). Kempf gives his second movement - marked only non-allegro - attacca - a dreamy landscape of delicious seductiveness, the harmonies more clearly Scriabinesque than we usually hear. From 2'48 to 3'14 you can hear exactly how Kempf links this Sonata back to the sound of the Second Concerto. The final movement is a veritable tour de force, and Kempf's pianism here reaches transcendental peaks. The Romanticism of this movement is red-blooded, with a potent, almost sexually charged dynamism. The colours are almost always darker than before - crimson tides, with an almost port-wined darkness to his tone. From 5'02 he launches the final pages with wild abandon.

A colleague recently sent me a copy of a CDR performance of Kempf playing the Op.36 Sonata at the Shirakawa Hall in Nagoya (from Kempf's 1999 Japanese tour). If anything, this is an even more incandescent performance, with the colours more fin-de-siecle than in this recorded version. There is added spaciousness to the slow movement, a more varied sense of poetic bewilderment, and an almost Homeric mystery to the movement's development. This is then contrasted by a more mercurial tension to the closing allegro and a dramatic tempest of almost frenetic passion.

The Etudes-tableaux require an even greater sense of coloration in order to bring the sinuous writing to the fore. Alternating between eddying vibrancy, vortex-driven harmonies, desolation and almost cavernous sonorities their moods are multifarious. Kempf achieves this, and more, magnificently. Just listen to his handling of the Appassionato (No 5), to hear how he gets an almost orchestral palette from the piano. The line is inexorably held, long-breathed and alternating between a whisper to the most plangent echo. In No 6, his triplets and treble semi-quavers are devolved from the most assured technique, but the personality he attaches to each set of notes paints a picture of quite astonishing realism. No 9 has real panache, with notes ricocheting from the keyboard and a dramatic rhythmic tension.

In short, this is a superb disc. Kempf's pianism is often like a tsunami, swelling with both passion and poetry. The technique is superb, the understanding of Rachmaninov's image-fuelled writing often more so. The sounds he gets from the Yamaha piano are amongst the most convincing I have heard from this instrument, the recording very natural. A winning disc.


Marc Bridle

 Performances -

Sound -

Marc Bridle has interviewd Freddy Kempf

see also live concert review 

Ian Lace adds:-

I remember sitting transported when I heard Freddy Kempf playing the Rachmaninov Variations to win the 1992 BBC Young Musician of the Year competition. I wrote in Classic CD at that time, "here was insight and sensitivity way beyond his 14 years. But will this commitment be captured on disc?" Since then, of course, he has gone on to win the third prize in the 1998 Tchaikovsky competition and to endear himself to countless discriminating Russian music lovers. But he was wise enough to back out of the limelight, after the BBC competition, to allow his technique to mature and his musicality deepen further. He has now emerged to pursue a promising career as perhaps, one of the greatest pianists of this new century. Already, the critics have eulogised over his first recording - of Schumann - for BIS and he is greatly sought after all over the world.

This new recording of Rachmaninov instrumental works can only enhance his reputation.

The well-loved Piano Sonata No.2 is played in its original more demanding 1913 version.

Kempf 's reading has a fitting sense of theatricality. He is alert to all its poetry as well as its power, conscious of all its subtleties, tuned to its rhythmic twists, its ebb and flow, and its mercurial changes of mood, dynamics, tempi. He pounces like a tiger in the more bombastic outbursts of the outer movements but floats feather-like just discernible figurations in the more chaste inner Non allegro.

To quote from Ates Orga's brilliant notes for this album, "Rachmaninov 'cared little for what we mighht call "physical" programme music [in the Straussian understanding] [but he] liked an external influence: he liked to be captivated or inspired y a picture or a poem, but the inspiration having been found he relegated the actual subject to the background and rarely revealed its identity." Rachmaninov, though, confided to Respighi who was to orchestrate some of them that each had its own programme 'a secret' explanation, revealing only four of them from this set.

Kempf's inspired readings of these Études-tableaux again show his wonderful sense of atmosphere, drama, and colour. His Lento assai Étude No. 2, a portrayal of "'the sea and seaguls' is rapturous evocation of a lonely ocean, desolate birds, the Northern light veiled in Dies irae tones". You wonder that there are just two hands are at work here, the rich multi-layered texture with the overlapping watery figures and the mournful dies irae figures almost lulling one hypnotically into a dangerous sleep seem to be emanating from an orchestra so skillfuly has Rachmaninov written this music and Kempf responding with playing that is totally controlled, perfectly balanced and utterly convincing. In Étude 5 (Appassionato) he gives us an emotionally charged reading of the sort of music that one associates with the grand melodies of the piano concertos. In Étude 7 he paints a vivid picture of a funeral, the rain pouring relentlessly as the coffin nears the church to a funeral march; the choirs is heard distantly, inside, bells toll… As relief there is the more raucous Étude No. 6 evoking the growls of the wolf as he stalks and pounds after Red Riding Hood obliviously skipping on her way to her grandmother's.

The programme ends with Kempf's nicely restrained reading of Rachmaninov's transcription of Fritz Kreisler's lovely Liebeslied, here overlayed with some Rachmaninov bitter-sweet melancholy

This is an excellent album which should be in the collection of every lover of Rachmaninov and every admirer of supreme pianistic artistry.


Ian Lace

[Those who might be interested in reading the linked review of Respighi's transcription, for orchestra, of five of these Études-tableaux click here.]


Marc Bridle

 Performances -

Sound -

Ian Lace

Reviews from previous months

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