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Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

BBC Legends: Kempff
Franz Peter SCHUBERT (1797-1828)

Piano Sonata in E, D566: [13.14]
Impromptu in Ab, D935 #2 [5.28]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)

Ballades (4) for Piano Op.10 [21.29]
Romance in F, Op.118 #5 [3.34]
Intermezzo in eb Op.118 #6 [4.47]
Intermezzo in Bb Op.76 #4 [2.48]
Robert SCHUMANN (1686-1750)

Sonata in g, Op.22 [19.16]
Wilhelm Kempff (piano)
Recorded Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, UK, 1972, exc. Brahms Opp.118 and 76, 1969
Notes in English, Deutsch, and Français.
BBC MUSIC BBCL 4114-2 [71.32]



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Comparison recordings:
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.

Paul Shoemaker



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