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Rudolf Kempe (1910-1976)
CD 1
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)

Tragic Overture, op.81 (1)
Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)

Symphony no.4 in E flat – "Romantic" (2)
CD 2
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Symphony no.3 in E flat, op.55 – "Eroica" (3)
Hugo WOLF (1860-1903)

Italian Serenade (4)
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)

Daphnis et Chloë – Suite no.2 (5)
Johann STRAUSS II (1825-1899)

Leichtes Blut – Polka schnell, op.319 (6)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (1), Munich Philharmonic Orchestra (2, 4, 5), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (3), Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (6)/Rudolf Kempe
Rec. Locations: Grunewaldkirche, Berlin (1), Herkulessaal, Munich (2, 4, 5), Smetana Hall, Prague (3), Musikverein, Vienna (6); Dates: 19-23.1.1960 (1), 25.11.1972 (2), 22.5.1974 (3), 17.6.1971 (4), 10.12.1974 (5), 21-22.12.1960 (6). 2, 4 and 5 are live studio recordings and 3 is a live performance; 2-5 are issued for the first time
Great Conductors Of The 20th Century: Vol. 28
EMI CLASSICS IMG ARTISTS 5 75950 2 [2 CDs: 77:07, 79:07]

Rudolf Kempe was a much loved figure in Great Britain, where he was twice offered the conductorship of Covent Garden and where he was the Royal Philharmonic’s own choice as a successor to Beecham (a choice approved by the great man himself). Somewhat mysteriously, he moved to the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the end of his life. In continental Europe, after an opera-based start, he held posts with the Zurich Tonhalle and the Munich Philharmonic Orchestras and was a frequent guest in Vienna and Berlin. He also conducted at the Metropolitan but I think I am right in saying that American listeners knew him principally through his records.

I have to say that the one concert I actually attended conducted by Kempe did not impress me especially. A few encounters with his discs in my student years did little for me either, so I came to regard his reputation with a degree of suspicion. Another downside was that, while the RPO loved him and played well when he was conducting (as they do here), he was not a great orchestral builder. The RPO was the least considered of the big London four during his stewardship (a situation remedied when Dorati took over); nor did the orchestras of Zurich and Munich suddenly transform into world-beaters (but again, the latter play superbly in the three items here).

When writing of the issue in this series dedicated to van Beinum I pointed out that the onus was on the compilers to provide the evidence that their chosen subjects were, in fact, "Great Conductors of the 20th Century". With regard to van Beinum, I felt that the case was not proved. Here, I am happy to say, the evidence is overwhelming.

"Dedication" is a word often used of Kempe, and sometimes that can be a euphemism for mushy attack and weakly structured interpretations. So listen to the dramatic force with which the Tragic Overture is launched – nothing mushy about this, and the contrasting material is handled with exquisite tenderness. Furthermore, while Kempe plays up the contrasts more than most conductors in this piece, he also keeps the overall structure firmly in sight.

If the Brahms is masterly, the Bruckner is more remarkable still. It is a very pure-headed performance, based on broad tempi and transparent textures (the sound is always limpidly beautiful). Without making any apparent interpretative points, the music is allowed to unfold with a naturalness which few conductors attain. Each new paragraph seems somehow to emerge from silence and then finish in silence. Apart from a shaky start to the scherzo the orchestra plays marvellously, so this joins the benchmark versions by Klemperer, Böhm and Karajan.

The Beethoven, very finely played and recorded, is more controversial, with a slow movement stretching to 17’ 28" (Klemperer’s 1955 version took 14’ 43"). In spite of some blazing climaxes it is essentially a rather gentle performance, more flowing than driving, again very clear-textured and with some extremely detailed phrasing which opens up unaccustomed vistas. A number of moments came as a complete revelation, and how often can you say that of a work as familiar as this? But I don’t want to give the idea that the performance is a collection of moments; thanks to Kempe’s sense of flow it all coheres very well. I’m not going to forego all the more traditionally furrow-browed, driving versions in my collection, but this Eroica for those with "time to stand and stare" is to be treasured.

The Italian Serenade is absolute perfection. This same piece appeared in the volume dedicated to Boult and it was the one piece there over which I expressed some reservations, finding it too pressured. Oddly enough, Kempe’s basic tempo is faster but thanks to the flexibility with which he negotiates the transitions his actual timing is almost a minute longer. There is no sense of haste here; everything has a delicate, relaxed and affectionate charm. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed the piece so much.

The Ravel comes as a reminder that Kempe’s repertoire was not by any means limited to the Austro-German classics which he was most frequently asked to record. The opera he conducted most often in the course of his career was, believe it or not, Carmen, and the Vienna State Opera knew him as a specialist in Verdi. At the time of his death Decca had contracted him to record all 15 symphonies by Shostakovich – he would have been the first conductor outside Russia to have done so (this honour then went to Bernard Haitink). In 1962 he conducted Delius at the Bradford Festival and his handling of the composer was much admired. I think we can deduce from the present Ravel performance that he would have been a very fine interpreter of Delius, for it is beautifully relaxed and warm, the sunrise patiently unfolded, but perhaps lacking the coiled nerves which lie behind much French music. The Danse générale does show, however, that Kempe could produce energy when called for.

I have elsewhere criticised the tendency in this series to throw in lightweight fillers that tell us little about the conductor in question. However, when you have a Strauss polka which combines humour and verve with elegance and refinement as this one does, it is another matter, for this helps to complete the portrait of Kempe’s musical personality.

Altogether this album seems to mark one of the highpoints of the series. If you are not acquainted with Kempe’s work, or if you have doubts about his stature, the evidence presented here is incontrovertible and will probably encourage you to investigate further. And if you are already a firm admirer of this conductor, there are some important new issues awaiting you.

Christopher Howell

See Also: Great Conductors of the 20th Century

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