Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-21.
Wilhelm Kempff (piano).
DG Collectors Edition 463
766-2 [ADD] [seven
These recordings date from between 1965 and 1969, a time when there was
substantially less competition for an undertaking of this nature. Now, thirty
years later, the diversity and genius of Schubert's piano sonatas are very
much more appreciated. These pieces have attracted the attention of many
fine pianists: the names of Uchida, Pollini, Brendel, Schiff and Tirimo spring
immediately to mind. Looking back across the decades, Kempff's complete traversal
appears a remarkable achievement that still carries authority. As for the
packaging of its present incarnation, useful notes by John Reed are complemented
by a Chronological Table that helps to contextualise the sonatas and explains
the various incomplete states of some of the pieces.
Deutsche Grammophon has elected to begin at the summit: CD 1 begins with
the greatest of all Schubert's sonatas, the B flat, D960. Kempff shows a
keen awareness of Schubert's harmonic shifts and has a wide variety of touch
at his command. But a comparison of his Andante sostenuto with, for example,
Uchida's (Philips 456 572-2) is to move from the earthly plane to somewhere
altogether more exalted and special. Kempff's occasionally messy finale takes
the edge off an interpretation that began so promisingly. All in all, the
impression left is that Kempff has failed to fully come to terms with the
depths of this enormous, fascinating piece.
As one works ones way through the set, it becomes clear that Kempff is
substantially more at home in some sonatas than in others. His rounded (but
not dull) sound suits the G major Sonata, D894 well. Here he captures the
folk-like simplicity of the Menuetto and evokes pastoral piping in the finale.
The tempo for the first movement is fairly brisk (the marking is Molto moderato
e cantabile), but not so much so as to wholly detract from the inherent peace
in the music: only occasionally does one feel that things are rushed
inordinately. However, Tirimo is a full six minutes slower in this movement
and projects a fuller sense of tranquillity. Also, Tirimo's finale flows
much more effectively and with more of a sense of inevitability. Kempff follows
D894 with the D major Sonata, D850. He has the necessary simplicity for the
finale and comes up with an appropriately flowing tempo for the second movement
The fourth disc in his set is extremely well planned: two A minor sonatas
(D845 and D784) sandwich the C major, D840, the so-called Relique. The first
movement of the D845 is marked Moderato, something Kempff clearly chose to
ignore as the flow is distinctly hurried along. In the finale it is the vivace
qualifier to the Allegro that is taken with some (anti-)Schubertian salt,
the whole remaining a little lacklustre. Pollini seems much more at home
in this piece (DG 419 672-2, coupled with the Wanderer Fantasy). It is up
to the opening Moderato of the Relique Sonata, D840 to prove that Kempff
can indeed achieve a sense of repose, while the gentle, almost fragmentary
second movement again brings out his best.
The A major Sonata, D664, is one of the highlights of the set. Kempff is
highly attuned to the light A major world of the first movement. He refuses
to degenerate into 'music-box' effects when Schubert focuses on the higher
registers, he provides a gentle Andante and brings the sonata to a graceful
conclusion. The E flat Sonata, D568 again emerges as wholly Schubertian,
with Kempff's delicate side once more to the fore. Unfortunately, a sense
of fantasy is lacking in the Sonata in A minor, D537, and Kempff indulges
in his occasional fault of clipping phrases in the second movement.
His advocacy of the earlier Sonatas is, however, never in doubt, and his
belief in these sonatas shines through the entire enterprise. The recording
serves him at all times well. There is no doubt that there are better
performances of many of these sonatas available elsewhere (one immediately
thinks of Uchida's transcendent penetration or Pollini's crystalline clarity),
but if a one-pianist complete set is required at reasonable price (around
forty pounds for seven discs), Kempff proves a generally reliable guide.
In his introduction to the Sonatas, Kempff writes 'When Schubert sounds his
magic harp, do we not feel as though we are floating on a sea of sound, freed
from everything material?'.