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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
The Five Piano Concertos

Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Op. 15 (1795) [36:58]
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat Op. 19 (1798) [29:31]
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor Op. 37 (1800) [35:12]
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Op. 58 (1806) [33:04]
Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat Op. 73 Emperor (1809) [38:30]
Rondo for Piano in C major Op.41 No.1 [7:00]
Rondo for Piano in G major Op.51 No.2 [8:35]
Wilhelm Kempff (piano)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Paul van Kempen
rec. Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin, May 1953 and Beethovensaal, Hannover, January 1953 (Rondos)
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON DG 476 5299 [3 CDs: 66:34 + 68:21 + 54:42]

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When I began my listening to the Concertos the only Kempff cycle available, naturally enough, was the stereo Leitner. But I always had a hankering to hear the van Kempen. There was something about Kempff’s inimitable lightness that fascinated me and I wondered whether the Berlin mono recordings could intrigue, excite and move me as much as the later traversal. The answer is yes, yes and yes.

Firstly a word about the 1953 recordings. There is tape hiss, residual but evident. But to compensate the sound is very much forward, very square-on, and this refers as much to things such as the trenchant wind chording as it does to the solo spectrum. It’s certainly not a warm sound exactly, there’s nothing enveloping or cozy about it; in fact in places it’s more than a touch brittle. There are moments when the strings suffer from an endemic swimmy-ness as well which leads to a lack of real focus and bloom.

Against Kempff and van Kempen’s musicianship of course this is pretty much irrelevant, though in fairness to prospective purchasers it should be noted. As for their interpretation one can spend hours over the balance of power between the mono and stereo Kempff cycles. Better, perhaps, to allow oneself the luxurious position of being able to indulge oneself in both, if one can. Otherwise one finds that in the early concertos Kempff strides with Haydnesque gallantry in the First, his brio both bracing and affectionate. The warmth and delicacy of his slow movement is both natural and unaffected, whilst the energy and dynamism of the finale are always controlled by his appropriate touch. The Second Concerto is stylish and gracious, its slow movement emerging beautifully cushioned and relaxed, lyricism fusing with delicacy. Rhythmic pointing informs the finale – that and a puckish, smiling wit, insouciant and alive.

The Third Concerto is beautifully coloured and weighted. Ornaments are crystalline, the orchestral response full of solicitude and alternating grandeur. In the finale we find Kempff refusing to push the tempo. The Fourth is stoic and forward moving; there’s something noble about his refusal to linger, though he never phrases at all breathlessly. Architectural proprieties are always observed and the sound world is consonant, not outsize. Dynamics are related, not disproportionate in the slow movement. As for the finale there is exquisite lightness, delicious turning of ornaments and a buoyant rhythmic sense.

The Emperor is almost as commanding as the stereo remake though obviously rather less well recorded. Perhaps, if anything, the stereo performance has an edge in terms of technical address but the earlier traversal’s treble delicacy and limpidity are remarkable in themselves. Maybe the recording accentuates a certain glassiness of string tone but the playing itself is full of vivid sensitivity and corporate understanding. Sometimes in the finale Kempff’s runs teeter on the edge of audibility so delicious is his sense of dynamics, so palpable his playful wit. To bring up the final disc to respectable timing we have the two Op.51 Rondos in energizing performances recorded a coupe of months before the concerto cycle.

An outstanding cycle, then, graced with glorious pianism and a conductor who moulds the orchestral strands with perfect judgement and awareness. The mono sound may deter some from acquainting themselves with this set, preferring to rest with the stereo. That’s understandable if you have to settle on just the one. But for life affirming humanity this set takes some beating.

Jonathan Woolf



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