Schubert Piano Sonatas complete: Wilhelm Kempff, piano
Schumann, Piano Sonata in g, Op.22; Jörg Demus, piano
Brahms: Ballades, Op.10: Artur Rubinstein, piano
It must have been on his first USA tour that
I heard and met Wilhelm Kempff. He played Bach, and Schubert Impromptus
- better than on any of his recordings, of course. I went
backstage with a gushy, computer nerd college sophomore who chattered
on inanely, and after signing our programs Kempff was generous
and tactful in answering my companion’s comments and questions
in all seriousness. Then some local friends showed up and he very
politely excused himself to go out with them for the evening.
It is no wonder that he was a much beloved teacher as well as
a fine composer and one of the half dozen great pianists of the
20th Century - some would no doubt say the very greatest
The earliest photos of him as a teenager show
virtually the same expression on his face he has always had. Then
there was a little of the ‘let’s hop into bed’ in his look, whereas
in his old age his face says, simply, ‘if you would like to listen
I have something important I would like to say to you.’ I think
he thinks he’s smiling, but one has to look closely to see that.
Comparing this performance of the Schubert two-movement
sonata D566 with his performance from the complete set on DG,
the live version here is just a little more passionate in the
first movement while the sound is not quite so clear, especially
in the upper range. The performances are otherwise nearly identical.
The Rubinstein performance of the Ballades
is very effective, at times graceful, at times strong. He plays
them as though they were by both Liszt and Chopin, that is to
say, romantically, even rather theatrically. However only Kempff
brings a sense of intense spiritual sensuality to them, transmuting
any sense of conflict in the music into a divine dialectic. This
seems to be a unique ability of his generation of German musicians.
Kempff plays the first movement of the Schumann
Op.22 sonata with just exactly the right sense of ‘rasch,’ with
a lurching, stumbling forward movement, musically dramatic, but
without undue speed. The tempo indication, ‘So rasch wie möglich’
(as headstrong as possible), is not, as some would have it, as
my pocket musical dictionary translates it, ‘as fast as possible’.
Compared to Kempff, Demus sounds antic, feverish, rushed, almost
haphazard. In the slow movement, Kempff is supremely lyrical,
spiritual, coaxing the sound from the piano. In the scherzo Demus
has more brass sound, whereas Kempff recalls more the woodwinds.
Both achieve a dancing lightness of phrasing and a sense of importance.
In the vigorous parts of the finale, Demus produces masculine
energy and brilliance, but in the quieter passages Kempff makes
much more sense and achieves sufficient contrast against the brightness.
These are both great performances, but different, each artist
finding his own treasures.
The Brahms eb minor
Intermezzo, Opus 118 #6 is the pride of the disk, a performance
to cherish. The word ‘overwhelming’ comes to mind, and one doesn’t
want to try to observe why it is so beautiful. The response of
the audience shows that they fully realised the magnificence of
what they had just heard.
This is the second Kempff recital disk issued
on BBC Music, but there seems no intent to join them together
into a set. Being that this is a live performance there’s just
an occasional cough here and there, but the audience behaved very
well most of the time.