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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Works for Solo Keyboard
Partita No. 4 in D major, BWV 828 [32:10]
Partita No. 6 in E minor, BWV 830 [33:50]
Freddy Kempf (piano)
rec. Nybrokajen 11, Stockholm, July 2002
BIS-CD-1330 [66:03]

Gould/Sony, Kuschnerova/Orfeo, Rangell/Dorian, Rubsam/Naxos, Schepkin/Ongaku, Tureck/Philips

Freddy Kempf is a fast-rising star of the piano repertoire known for his outstanding virtuosity and independence of interpretation. Any complaints about his music-making have usually concentrated on the issue of mannerisms and characterization. Unfortunately, these concerns rear their heads in this new disc of two Bach keyboard partitas.
First, the good news. Kempf has "flying fingers" and an overall technique that is very impressive; just listen to his dynamic accounts of the Gigues from each Partita. Also, his ornamentation is just how I like it: tasteful, judiciously employed, and always a natural enhancement to Bach's musical arguments. Kempf's double-dotted rhythmic figures, such as in the D major Partita's Overture, are highly ceremonial and possess ample rhythmic lift. He is attractively poignant in the Sarabandes, a quality that also informs his very slow-paced Allemande from the E minor Partita where he makes Rosalyn Tureck sound like a speed demon in her measured performance.
The debit side is also substantial. I mentioned earlier Kempf's excellent rhythmic lift in the double-dotted overture, but he generally flattens Bach's rhythms. The strongest manifestation is in the D major's Air where Kempf squashes the rhythmic patterns with the added disadvantage of the most feeble and uninvolved weeping descending lines I have ever heard on record. Another concern is that he displays a penchant for playing in a demure and rather precious manner that is most damaging to the D major Partita's magnificent and regal Allemande where Kempf trades in majesty for flimsy meanderings. Other less than sterling qualities include some spongy articulation, weak conversation among voices and reduced bite to many phrases.
Perhaps most problematic is a lack of significant character to Kempf's interpretations. Each of the comparison versions possesses abundant character. I don't consider it unreasonable to expect a healthy amount from Kempf. But he does not strongly portray any of Bach's most compelling musical traits: severity, joy, rhetoric/conversation, spirituality, foreboding, remorse, playfulness, the "Papa Bach" effect. Specifically, Kempf can't hold a candle to Gould's precision and majesty, Tureck's probing nature, Rubsam's unique individuality, Schepkin's poetry or Kuschnerova's joyful declarations.
Kempf's soundstage is fine, neither diminishing nor enhancing the impact of the performances. But the program is not market-friendly, having only two works on the disc. Most modern-era recordings program three Partitas for a single disc, but Kempf elects to play the two longest of the six Partitas, insuring no space for a third work.
In conclusion, Kempf's new Bach recording adds little to the discography of the Partitas. My best advice is to acquire the Gould, Tureck, and Rubsam piano sets; each is highly individualized and stunning in its impact. Kempf's less than sterling accounts of only two Partitas at premium price are simply not competitive with the better versions in the catalogues.

Don Satz

see also review by Paul Shoemaker






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