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Wilhelm KEMPFF: The Complete 1950s Concerto Recordings
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)

Piano Concertos: 9 in E flat K.271, 15 in B flat K.450
Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra with members of the Suisse Romande Orchestra/Karl Münchinger
Recorded September 1953, Victoria Hall, Geneva
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Piano Concertos: 1 in C op. 15, 2 in B flat op. 19, 3 in c op. 37, 4 in G op. 58, 5 in E flat op. 73 – "Emperor"
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Paul van Kempen
Recorded 19, 21, 23, 25, 26, 27, 29 May 1953, Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin
Robert SCHUMANN (1810.1856)

Piano Concerto in a op. 54
London Symphony Orchestra/Joseph Krips
Recorded 26-27 March 1953, Kingsway Hall, London
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)

Piano Concerto no. 1 in d op. 15
Dresden Staatskapelle/Franz Konwitschny
Recorded 2-3 May 1957, Dresden
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)

Piano Concertos: 1 in E flat, 2 in A
London Symphony Orchestra/Anatole Fistoulari
Recorded June 1954, Kingsway Hall, London
Wilhelm Kempff (piano), orchestras, conductors, dates and locations as above
Limited Edition
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON DG 474 024-2 [5 CDs: 58:04, 66:34, 74:22, 78:53, 73:15]


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Mine was not the only generation to have grown up in a musical world in which the pre-eminence of Wilhelm Kempff as a Beethoven interpreter was virtually unquestioned. He donned this mantle naturally with the demise of Artur Schnabel and established his position with his mono cycles of the sonatas and concertos in the early fifties. Stereo re-recordings appeared in the 1960s and consolidated a primacy gradually assumed in the digital era by Alfred Brendel. Truth to tell, as a young student I was never terribly impressed by such of his recordings as I heard; I rather suspected that Deutsche Grammophon had seized upon him at a moment when the great pianists of the age were all contracted elsewhere and had created the Kempff myth by astute marketing. My view received a degree of confirmation from my much-revered teacher Ilonka Deckers-Küszler (a particular friend of Edwin Fischer) who commented that, from all the many occasions on which she had heard Kempff live, the only performance to have stuck in her memory was that of a Chopin nocturne which he had played as an encore.

That being so, DG were perhaps unimaginative in recording him in such very circumscribed repertoire; one of the major revelations of the "Great Pianists" series was Kempff’s long-forgotten performances of Liszt’s two Legends, and these were recorded during his brief flirt with Decca, as were the Mozart, Schumann and Liszt concertos in the present limited edition.

Kempff was in fact a man of wide-ranging views. He was also a composer (his second symphony was premiered by Furtwängler), a fine chamber musician and one of the few pianists who was sufficiently expert as an organist to have performed publicly on that instrument. He was also a widely sought-after teacher. He did not perform such contemporary composers as Schönberg, Bartók or Stravinsky; nor did he show any interest, to the best of my knowledge, in Debussy or Ravel, but neither should he be remembered as purely a German performer whose repertoire began with Beethoven and ended with Schubert. Rather to my surprise the performances in this box which I valued most are not those of the Beethoven cycle.

If Kempff’s name was not especially coupled with Mozart, the present concerto coupling suggests that this was merely because he was not often asked to perform that composer’s music or, in the case of three concerto couplings on LP with Ferdinand Leitner, because he was allotted a somewhat heavy-handed conductor. Münchinger’s bright little band, with added wind-players from the Suisse Romande, approached phrasing much as might be expected from an original-instruments group today; probably it sounded brittle back in the 1950s but it is unlikely to shock anyone in 2003. The effect is compounded by the tendency of Decca recordings of that time to have extreme brilliance in the treble frequencies; since the piano is rather backwardly recorded and has a very mellow sound, any attempt to have cut back the treble in this transfer would clearly have done the pianist no favours. Oddly enough the difference between the upfront, brilliant orchestra and the sweet-toned pianist calmly doing his own thing in the background is more disarming than incongruous. Unwittingly (I presume) Kempff, Münchinger and the engineers have produced something close to the balance that emerges when a small but gentle-toned piano of Mozart’s own day is used.

As to Kempff’s playing, it radiates sheer enjoyment in the music, every note a pool of light. It is striking how he gives an impression of spontaneity and expressive freedom without resorting to rhythmic distortion. This is beautifully scaled Mozart playing, unhurried and communicative. In particular his finales are taken at steady tempi, but such is the individual sheen on each semiquaver that he achieves great vitality and brilliance nonetheless. Of his slow movements it could be said that they radiate light rather than plumb the depths; Géza Anda was later to show how the Andantino of K.271 can assume a Bachian gravity, but this was not Kempff’s way. A lovely coupling, even if the oddities of the recording make it a disc for the specialist rather than the general music lover.

A more normal piano/orchestra balance was achieved by DG in their Beethoven recordings, even if the relative closeness of the piano produces a degree of hardness at times. Kempff’s playing displays the same characteristics as his Mozart and it is again remarkable how free he sounds when a metronome would tell you that his tempi are adhered to pretty strictly. It all goes to show that true expressive freedom is something far profounder than mere rhythmic licence. Here, too, the finales are taken at steady tempi which actually exude a great deal of vitality. And, once again, while one has heard the slow movements interpreted with more gravitas, Kempff’s gentle songfulness has its own attraction.

If this was much as I had expected, I had not expected to be so convinced by no. 3 interpreted in the same manner. Paul van Kempen has clearly taken some trouble to understand what Kempff was trying to say and together they avoid all attempt to thrash away just because this is BEETHOVEN IN C MINOR; mindful of Mozart’s concerto in that key they evince a gentle, but vital, serenity which may not be the only solution but which is especially recommended to those who resist a more massive approach.

In a sense the excellence of no. 4 could be taken for granted. But when we hear Kempff light upon the rapid scale in the fourth bar as if he had only just discovered it, or launch the finale as if he were making it up on the spur of the moment, we realise that he himself took nothing for granted. And here a word about his cadenzas; in all the first four concertos he writes his own. A purist might say that, since Beethoven provided cadenzas himself, we should use them. On the other hand, Beethoven’s purpose was merely to provide an option for performers who had not the wit to improvise cadenzas themselves. Whether improvised or written-down, Kempff’s sound spontaneous enough in their alternation between listener-friendliness and sheer zaniness. This goes for the first three concertos, but those for no. 4 are something else again, suggesting that a genuinely subversive spirit lay beneath Kempff’s gentle exterior. They put the finishing touch on a unique experience.

I much looked forward to hearing an "Emperor" played in the same gentle manner as the 3rd, but it didn’t work out like that. Kempff seems to have got it into his head to show that, in this work, he can make as much noise as the next man. Unfortunately, his chosen manner of tone production, which seems able to unleash the upper frequencies of the piano and so produce that light-filled radiance which was the secret of his lyrical poetry, appears unable to harness any great weight of tone. I had already noticed, but not been unduly disturbed by, a tendency to make jabbing sforzatos (try the coda to the finale of no. 3); here the whole thing seems to consist of accents and the sound is hard and aggressive when it should be full. Some of this seems to affect van Kempen as well and the outer movements of the concerto tend to slog; I got most enjoyment from the songful slow movement.

I see that generations of critics have blamed the clattery tone quality on the recording. I am afraid I disagree, and am convinced that this is a case where the pianist, not the engineers, has to be shot. Either way, there seems a general agreement that this is not an entirely satisfactory "Emperor".

Kempff recorded a fair amount of Schumann’s solo piano music in his later years; maybe too late since the general feeling was that he was unable to identify with the composer’s more passionate Florestan moments, thus weakening the attractive poetry he found elsewhere. A late recording of the Concerto with Kubelík made little impact. This recording with Krips, on the other hand, seems pretty well ideal. The first movement unfolds at a pace which permits an alternation between incandescence and gentle reminiscence with a minimum of actual tempo variation. The Intermezzo is slower than usual; this certainly pleased me since I find most performances of it uncomfortably fast. Even if you don’t agree, give this a hearing; a more sheerly lovely performance would be hard to imagine. The finale is notable for Kempff’s unmannered treatment of the syncopated second subject (often mauled out of shape) and concludes with real vitality. Josef Krips, at another time and another place a somewhat obsequious partner to Rubinstein in this concerto, interacts with Kempff very positively indeed. Since this recording is probably technically the best in this set, this is a version that should never have been forgotten.

After the experience of the "Emperor" my expectations of Brahms 1 were not high. I was quite wrong. First of all I much impressed by Konwitschny’s unfolding of the opening ritornello, at a tempo which allows for both exultation and relaxation; the music just flows majestically forward. It is not deliberately dramatic, as are the several versions conducted by Georg Szell, but it proves an ideal setting for Kempff’s playing. He does not attempt the massiveness of some interpreters but his tone is always warm and rounded and it always seems to be enough. He also gives an object lesson in how to present the second subject in a lyrical, singing manner rather than note-by-note.

In the slow movement there is a slight tendency for Konwitschny, a notable Wagnerian, to dwell warmly on his orchestral passages while Kempff moves ahead on his entries, but this is minimal and suggests spontaneity rather than outright disagreement. A steady but vital finale completes a performance which does not try to take by storm but which will provide much satisfaction of a deeper kind.

The piano is rather backwardly placed in the Liszt concertos, but this does not mask some pretty enthralling playing. Kempff’s digital virtuosity is the equal of anyone’s, but it is used to entirely musical ends, distilling a rare poetry from both scores. In no. 1 Fistoulari sometimes tries a bit too hard with his orchestral interludes, becoming slow and portentous, but such moments are few and in no. 2 he is an ideal partner. Anyone who still turns his nose up at Liszt should sample the gradually awakening poetry at the start of this concerto to hear what two imaginative musicians can make of it. All this tends to reinforce the impression that Kempff should have been encouraged to cast his net a little more widely.

Casual listeners are advised that even the best of these recordings shows its age, but those interested in the history of piano-playing in the post-war period will find some indispensable – even revelatory - items here.

Christopher Howell


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