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Freddy Kempf (piano)
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Pictures at an Exhibition (1874) [32:54]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Gaspard de la nuit (1909) [22:43]
Mily BALAKIREV (1837-1910)
Islamey – Oriental Fantasy (1869, rev. 1902) [8:32]
Freddy Kempf (piano)             
rec. April 2006, Nybrokajen 11 (former Academy of Music), Stockholm, Sweden
BIS BISSACD1580 [63:43]
 

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All credit to Robert von Bahr at BIS for staying with SACD, even after the majors bailed out. In this low-quality, MP3-obsessed age it’s gratifying that good production values still matter to this label, which has produced some superb discs in recent years. Fortunately they have a roster of fine artists as well, among them the pianists Yevgeny Sudbin, Ronald Brautigam and the young Brit Freddy Kempf.

The latter’s cover portrait might suggest a touch of ennui, but I’m pleased to say there’s nothing tired about his playing here. I did wonder whether it was wise to attempt these Olympian scores so soon. In Pictures especially he is up against the likes of Sviatoslav Richter, Yefim Bronfman and Mikhail Pletnev; in the Ravel and Balakirev there are plenty of rivals too.

Mussorgsky’s response to Hartmann’s evocative pictures is probably best known in its various orchestral guises, where weight and colour are more easily achieved than on the piano. Kempf opts for a Steinway D, faithfully recorded, the opening ‘Promenade’ lighter and a little faster than I’d expected. Clearly this is not going to be a weighty reading, but what of the all-important light and shade?

Kempf certainly points up the grotesquerie of ‘Gnomus’, although his phrasing seems a trifle mannered at times. Pianophiles will revel in this lovely acoustic, the instrument ideally placed for maximum detail and clarity without ever seeming brightly lit. The tolling figures in the left hand and the animated flourished in the right have seldom sounded as natural as they do here.

I particularly admired ‘The Old Castle’, which Kempf despatches in flowing style, the troubadour’s lament tellingly phrased. It’s a surprisingly subtle reading and proof, if it were needed, that Kempf can play with delicacy and feeling. His reading of ‘Tuileries’ is immaculate, if somewhat detached, the swaying ox-cart in ‘Bydlo’ suitably ponderous. Speaking of which, some listeners may find Kempf’s rhythms a little too unyielding here.

Perhaps that’s the underlying problem in these Pictures; Kempf knows the notes but not how to bend them to his will when it matters. I’m not suggesting he play fast and loose with Mussorgsky’s markings – as Pletnev does – merely that he takes a few risks. Without that edge-of-the-seat element this music doesn’t always hold one’s ear as it should.

‘The Ballad of the Unhatched Chicks’ confirms Kempf’s technical prowess, with some beautifully pointed playing, but it highlights his interpretive weaknesses too. I so wanted to hear a bit more sparkle here, perhaps even a sense of fun. And in ‘Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle’ the somewhat sinister characters are lightly sketched rather than drawn in detail.

The gossiping peasants in ‘The market at Limoges’ are despatched in scintillating style, although Kempf’s playing is much too manic for my tastes. And once we enter the catacombs the lack of sheer weight becomes more of an issue. That said he responds magically to the gloom of ‘Con mortuis in lingua mortua’. No quibbles about light and shade here. As for ‘The Hut on Hen’s Legs’ it’s a little rushed but remarkably it’s never garbled. When dashed off like this there isn’t much sense of the approaching grandeur of ‘The Bogatyr Gate’ which, to his credit, he despatches with newfound weight and tonal splendour.

Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, based on prose poems by Aloysius Bertrand (1807-41), is a set of virtuosic character pieces. The first movement, depicting the water nymph Ondine’s unrequited love for the poet, has a trembling, diaphanous beauty that Kempf captures very well indeed. Once again the recorded sound is exemplary, bringing out every nuance of this shimmering score.

The tolling B flat ostinato of ‘Le Gibet’ (The Gallows) will certainly induce a few shivers, although it isn’t quite as nightmarish or spectral as it can be. Still, I can’t fault Kempf when it comes to the sheer seductiveness of his playing. ‘Scarbo’ demands a different kind of virtuosity, to which the pianist responds with obvious relish. Yes, it may seem a little more reticent than some versions but he tackles it with enough brio to keep one hooked to the very end.

Gaspard was intended to be more difficult than Balakirev’s oriental fantasy Islamey, written forty years earlier. I’m pleased to say Kempf plays this music magnificently, his control of touch, phrasing and dynamics just remarkable. This really is pianism of a very distinguished kind and surely augurs well for the future.

Although I didn’t warm to these Pictures – I look forward to another showing some years hence – the Ravel and Balakirev are simply splendid. The BIS engineers must also take a bow, as they too have contributed to a most satisfying disc. More, please.

Dan Morgan


 


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