> Bach Transcriptions Kempff [JW]: Classical Reviews- May2002 MusicWeb(UK)






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J S BACH (1685-1750)
Favourite Piano Transcriptions
Transcriptions by Wilhelm Kempff

Chorale Prelude Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland
Chorale Prelude Es ist gewisslich an der Zeit
Flute Sonata No 2 – Sicilienne
Organ Chorale Prelude Befiehl du deine Wege
Jesu joy of man’s desiring
Chorale Prelude In dulci jubilo
Cantata Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir
Chorale Prelude Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme
Harpsichord Concerto BWV 1056 –Largo
Chorale Prelude Ich ruf zu hir, Herr Jesu Christ

Christoph Willibald GLUCK (1714-1787)

Ballet music from Orfeo ed Euridice
Georg Friedrich HANDEL (1685-1759)

Minuet in G minor HWV 434 No 1
J S BACH (1685-1750)

English Suite No 3 BWV 808
French Suite No 5 BWV 816

Wilhelm Kempff, piano
Recorded 1976
ELOQUENCE DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 457 624-2 [79.20]


One of the highlights of Angel Hewitt’s recent Bach transcription album was to rediscover those of Wilhelm Kempff. Hewitt, maybe the greatest Bach pianist of our day, paid eloquent tribute to a man who had begun as an organist and was, as befits a musician of his generation, a composer-pianist of the kind now almost extinct. To encounter his transcriptions was to be reminded of his greatness and to listen to this disc is to encounter it once again.

We have lived through the puritanical prescriptiveness of the more doctrinaire early music enthusiasts – whose attractive speculations are as chimerical as any other belief – and twenty five years later we can listen to a great pianist unfolding effortlessly eventful and thoughtful mediations of Chorale Preludes and much else. In Nun komm’ Der Heiden Heiland we open with Kempff’s nobility, a gravity distilled of wisdom and tact. In the second Es ist gewisslich we can hear the subtlety and finesse of his left hand as it propels the noble melody. There is real amplitude in Befiehl du deine Wege without extraneous melodic impositions. Kempff’s transcription of Jesu joy of man’s desiring differs from Myra Hess’ quite significantly in ethos. An increasingly active left hand becomes more emphatic, tiered sonorities become distinctly aggressive and near the concluding modulation distinctive organ sonorities are disclosed in Kempff’s playing. The effect is rather unusual, rather like seeing a benign old friend suddenly go beetroot red in anger. Fascinating is Kempff’s clanging bell filled Wir danken dir in which celebration is mixed with praise. Wachet auf is a particular example of a wider principle. In other transcriptions pianists are much more inclined to emphasise the individual but disruptive left hand melody; listen for example to Busoni’s transcription for the full weight of conjunction and clash to be apparent. Kempff however isn’t interested; his transcription instead emphasises integration, wholeness and the confluence of left and right hand. Comparison with Egon Petri’s 1930s recording of the Bach-Busoni transcriptions shows that Kempff’s transcription is not only slower and less dramatic but that he has simplified, modified and subsumed Busoni’s creative clashes into an altogether simpler setting. Where Busoni is exultant Kempff is contemplative.

Elsewhere I admired the plangency and depth of tone in the Largo from the harpsichord Concerto and the very romantic and caressing Handel with its naughtily rolled bass. In the Gluck we find Kempff’s left hand rather busy and his right hand bejewelled, spinning the melody with not unforced tact. Not preferable to Petri’s limpidity and unassuming beauty but interesting to hear. There is also the not inconsiderable addition of the two suites, the English Suite No 3 and the French Suite No 5. Here Kempff shows crisp articulation, not over bright, never metronomic, and always gently expressive. In the Courante of the English Suite he is precise, athletic and quietly determined. In the second Sarabande he is moving without artifice and maintains proper depth of tone and clarity between hands. Listen also to the perfectly graded little stabbing left hand in the succeeding first Gavotte – unforced wit.

Twenty-five years have passed since Kempff recorded these pieces but time has done nothing to efface his playing. Indeed his stature seems only to increase and this CD, filled to the brim, gives many indications as to why he has valuably cogent things to say about Bach, transcriptions or otherwise.

Jonathan Woolf

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