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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975) Symphony No. 1 in F minor, Op. 10** (1923-25) [29:43]
Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809) Symphony in D major, Hob.1: No. 104 London (1795) [29:09]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976) Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, Op. 33a * (1945) [11:14]
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Rudolf Kempe
rec. Royal Festival Hall, London, 8 October 1975; *Fairfield Hall, Croydon, 12 October 1975; **BBC Studios, London, 29 May 1965. ADD
BBC LEGENDS BBCL 4188-2 [75:20]
 


It’s salutary to be reminded, in Alan Sanders’ note accompanying this CD, just how short was Rudolf Kempe’s tenure of the post of Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Though the appointment was announced in December 1973 it did not take effect until autumn 1975. A comparative handful of concerts followed before Kempe’s untimely death in May 1976. To judge from his work with, among other orchestras, the Royal Philharmonic, the Zurich Tonhalle and the Munich Philharmonic, he might have achieved great things with the BBC Symphony had he lived longer – he had already worked with them quite a bit, and to very good effect, since the early 1960s. In particular, as Mr Sanders points out, he might have had more opportunities to programme adventurous repertoire with them.
 
Kempe’s discography is not vast but most of it is distinguished. One thinks, for example, of his superb, and still unsurpassed, intégrale of Richard Strauss’s orchestral music with the Dresden Staatskapelle (EMI) to say nothing of the marvellous Brahms symphony cycle set down with the Berlin Philharmonic between 1956 and 1960 and now happily available through Testament (SBT 3054). This present issue very neatly fills some gaps in his discography. So far as I’m aware he only made a commercial recording of one of the works included here - the Haydn symphony – and I’m not at all sure that that recording is currently in the catalogue.
 
The Haydn comes from what seems to have been his first Festival Hall concert with the orchestra as their chief. It is, of course, “big band” Haydn but it’s none the worse for that although the trumpets do rather blare at the very start of the work. I like Kempe’s approach to the first movement allegro, which is full of purpose and where he gets his players to shade the music very nicely. The Andante is taken, perhaps, just a touch on the steady side but it’s affectionately shaped and played. The minuet is sturdy but energetic and I appreciated the gracefully flowing trio, where there’s some nice work from the principal bassoon. The finale is marked Spiritoso and Kempe does indeed ensure it’s played with spirit.  All in all, this is a most enjoyable performance. The sound is fully satisfactory though I rather prefer the sound that BBC engineers obtained in the same hall for Eugen Jochum and the LPO in Haydn a couple of years earlier (BBCL 4176-2 - see review).
 
The sound for the Britten item is preferable. The orchestra is more distanced from the microphones and one gets a better sense of the ambience of the hall. This performance comes from Kempe’s very next concert with the orchestra. Britten is not a composer with whom one associates this conductor but he does the Sea Interludes very well, with a good sense of drama – Kempe was, after all, a superb opera conductor. He moulds the opening movement, ‘Dawn’, skilfully. One senses concentration and atmosphere. In the next movement, ‘Sunday Morning’, the tempo for the initial material is pretty sprightly and I find that this works well, even more so when Britten returns to that music towards the close of the movement. The ‘Moonlight’ section is quite brooding and the concluding ‘Storm’ is potent and frightening. Here a special word of praise for the timpanist, who helps to drive the storm music along with some fiery and exciting playing. Once or twice in this movement I got the feeling that the orchestra was a bit taxed but the brass are splendidly incisive. The movement comes to a thrilling end with a defiant slam.   
 
The Shostakovich performance was given some ten years earlier and it’s especially valuable since it’s the only known recording by Kempe of a symphony by the Russian master. He points the quirky first movement well and several BBC SO principals distinguish themselves with some good solo work. The perky clarinet, bassoon and trumpet solos are particularly good. I like the way Kempe ensures that the orchestral textures are, for the most part, lean and spare throughout the symphony. Much of the music of the second movement is scampering stuff and it’s brought off well in this performance. Here the piano really comes to the fore on occasions. The only comparative let down is the three emphatic chords for solo piano (at 3:35). These sound a bit lightweight. Kempe controls the slow movement well, releasing it’s brooding power. This is a “big” movement, certainly much bigger than its eight-minute time span suggests. The reading of the finale is vivid and exciting. The recorded sound is a touch dry and studio-bound but it’s still more than acceptable, especially when one reflects that the recording was made forty years ago.
 
This CD contains three very good performances and collectors who share my enthusiasm for the work of this very fine, musical conductor will snap it up gratefully.
 
John Quinn 

 

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