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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.