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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonatas: No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13, 'Pathétique' (1798/99) [21'31]; No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 24 No. 2, 'Moonlight' (1801) [15'41]; No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57, 'Appassionata' (1806) [24'47].
Freddy Kempf (piano)
Rec. Nybrokajen 11, Stockholm, Sweden in August 2004. DDD
BIS SACD-1460 [62'53]

also available as CD BISCD1120

 

A brave decision on Freddy Kempf's part to record these three core Sonatas at such an early age. The three most popular 'nicknamed' sonatas have long been a favourite LP programme but surely in the age of CD/SACD and 80-plus minute playing times a minimum of one more could have been added?. 63 minutes is too short).

First, this is a simply lovely piano recording with real depth. It ranks with the best in this respect. As for Kempf, however, he has surely come to put this music down too early in his career, so what in effect we have is a memento of how they stand now – he may well re-record this repertoire later. Expensive for the collector, though, to accept such limitations.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, it is the earliest sonata that suits him best, a young man playing a young man's music. Kempf played this sonata in a Wigmore lunchtime in December 2003 (Review ).

I remain unconvinced by Kempf's 'pedal trick' in the opening bars - designed to simulate a sforzando - yet his allegro con brio is dynamic, exciting and absolutely devoid of technical problems. Kempf's articulation is clean and frequently attractively pearly. All the ingredients are there, and he stirs the mix with gusto. He does the repeat, arrestingly taking in the slow introduction a second time.

The famous slow movement (Adagio cantabile) speaks of waters that while calm and still are not necessarily more than ankle-deep. In keeping with this, the 'laughing' left-hand staccato at 3'05ff works well. The right-hand legato is less forced than it was at the Wigmore. If the finale is fairly dramatic, the ending disappoints. Far from being a dismissive gesture, Kempf seems unsure what to do with it.

The C sharp minor's first movement poses the problem of over-familiarity. Kempf is fairly tranquil, but does not transport at least this listener to anywhere. Traces of literalism may or may not be an intentional distancing. Things improve as the sonata goes on, however, with a nice rhythmic spring to the middle movement and a finale that refuses to run away with itself - the eternal temptation here. In fact this finale is the first (really the only) triumph of the disc, well-shaped and effective.

Finally the 'Appassionata'. Like Kempf's Chopin (Review and Review ), this is on the way there, real work in progress, but exciting to experience nonetheless. There is a fine sense of ebb and flow to the first movement, although the outbursts around 6'10-25 emerge as stop-start. It is the slow movement that is the acid test, and Kempf does seem to rush the Theme somewhat. Indeed, this movement is rather dull (plonky) of attack and, dare I say it, rather boring in Kempf's hands. The moment of balm at 3'12 is here acceptable, no more – certainly not a shaft of consolation, and Kempf can even seem laboured (c.4'50-55). The repeated chords that begin the finale are not the 'launch pad' they can be; the accelerando into the coda is a forced, painted-on addition rather than arising out of the natural internal impulse of the music.

Beautiful production values, including interesting notes by Jean-Pascal Vachon, do not make up for deficiencies in the actual substance of the disc.

Colin Clarke



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