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Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Etudes: Op. 10 (1829-32) [30’28]; Op. 25 (1832-36) [32’55].
Freddy Kempf (piano).
Rec. Nybrokajen 11 (former Academy of Music), Stockholm, Sweden, Aug 2003. DDD
BIS-SACD-1390 [64’08]

At the close of a review of a generally impressive but not uniformly even Op. 25 at the Wigmore in October last year (review), I stated that ‘I look forward to hearing his Chopin Etudes (both sets) in another 10-20 years time’. Six months later, and a SACD of the Opp. 10 and 25 appears (Kempf evidently does not approve of the Trois nouvelles Etudes, as there’s plenty of room left on the disc). BIS elect to accord him exemplary recording standards, courtesy of Producer/Engineer Jens Braun, and a piano that seems to have been exquisitely prepared by Stefan Olsson (try the end of the E minor, Op. 25 No. 5 for evidence of this).

Never at any point does Freddy Kempf make the listener doubt his technical abilities. Indeed, it is obvious he is more than just a technician - yet his interpretation has yet to mature and there is the constant nagging doubt that this has been put down for posterity too early in his career. There are moments of excellence, that much is undeniable, but when the Etudes are over Kempf does not give the impression of having undertaken a journey, rather of having presented 24 separate short pieces.

So it is that in the first Prelude of the Op. 10 set one can only admire the resonance of the bass (no muddiness at all), without really getting dragged into the fact this is the beginning of one of the piano literature’s major opuses. The second Prelude (A minor) reveals Kempf’s smooth legato (Horst Scholz’s booklet note - of which more later - refers rather nicely to this piece’s ‘tight, chromatic garlands’). The somewhat affected rubato of the usually magical E major makes the Prelude appear contrived (compare Kempf with Van Cliburn on RCA Legendary Visions 82876 58241-9, see my review, and you enter a different Universe!). The following, famous C sharp minor comes straight from the School of Aggressive Virtuosity. It is a torrent of notes and, on its own terms, is actually very exciting. Forced expression is again present in No. 6 (E flat minor, Andante), which meanders somewhat in Kempf’s hands. Literalism robs the F major (No. 8) of its lace-like magic - there is no doubting with Kempf that this is an Etude! The next Etude is better, more flighty. Hope comes in the form of No. 10, not too mechanistic and rising to quite an impressive climax. No. 11 (E flat) shows that Kempf does indeed possess an intimate side. Presumably this was to ensure maximum contrast to the martellato left-hand of the opening of No. 12 in C minor - the so-called ‘Revolutionary’. The set closes with Kempf adding warmth to his tone. The recording is particularly excellent here.

The Op. 25 set is dedicated to the Countess Marie d’Agoult, Liszt’s companion and mother to Cosima, Mrs Richard Wagner-to-be. Horst Scholtz’s notes about this set are all in one huge paragraph, making for difficult reading (over 1½ pages of text!) whatever their claims as a useful guide for the uninitiated.

Kempf’s studied rubato in the first of the sequence sets the tone for a reading short on sensitivity. The fourth Etude (A minor) is more typewriter than Agitato, although to be fair, later on, Kempf plays No. 8 (D flat) with more subtlety than he did at the Wigmore (where I referred to his ‘machine-gun’ touch). Structurally, too, the interpretation needs more consideration. The C sharp minor Lento (No. 7) is a meditation that represents the still centre of Op. 25. Kempf does not enter into Chopin’s world here, and an excellent left-hand towards the climax (around 2’30) is offset by right-hand chords that break the tone of the piano. Kempf is happiest in the Lisztian octaves of No. 10 in B minor, a tour-de-force. He leaves a long pause before the whimsical middle section, after a markedly violent close to the ‘A’ section. It helps to make this Etude, one of Kempf’s best performances, almost turn into a tone-poem. Of the A minor (No. 11), I wrote at the Wigmore that Kempf over-interpreted the simple single-line opening and its ensuing chordal ‘echo’, lessening the contrast to the ‘explosion’ that follows. Here the pianissimo chords are beautifully weighted, but the harmonic shift that closes the sequence, which should be so full of mystery, is here painfully literal, as if the pianist’s mind is on the perils of the rest of the Prelude. Maybe that was the case, but there is definitely not the requisite impression of holding one’s breath before the onslaught.

The final Prelude in C minor is impressive. Kempf’s harmonic awareness results in a well built climax. Yet this is not a set of Chopin Etudes I see myself returning to very often, except maybe as a demonstration of recording.

There appears to be some confusion as to which Etude is sometimes known as the ‘Winter Wind’, as the track listing has it as the final one, the liner notes imply it is No. 11.


Colin Clarke

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