Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1827)
Piano Sonata No. 16 in A minor, D. 845 (1825) [34:41]
Piano Sonata No. 21 in B flat major, D. 960 (1828) [35.56]
Wilhelm Kempff (piano)
rec. Decca Studios, West Hampstead, London, November 1950 (D. 960) and March 1953 (D. 845)
DECCA ELOQUENCE 476 9913 [70:45]

The Eloquence catalogue is an extraordinarily rich collection of archive material, and fortunate indeed is the person responsible for compiling it. I want that job! I reviewed recently a disc of Arthur Grumiaux playing the Berg Violin Concerto, and that is only one example chosen from countless indispensable discs available at an almost laughably low price. And if not all the issues are of such importance – how could they be? – each one has some serious claim on the collector. Here we have Wilhelm Kempff playing two Schubert piano sonatas in recordings originally issued on Decca. The A minor Sonata has apparently been issued on CD before, but this is the first appearance on CD of the B flat major. Neither performance should be confused with the pianist’s later recordings, a complete cycle recorded by Deutsche Grammophon.

The sound is inevitably showing its age, particularly in louder passages where there is some distortion, harshness and congestion. The playing completely eschews any suggestion of sensationalism. It is sober, considered, weighty and serious. The pianist seems to lay the music before the listener in an almost dispassionate way, inviting us to make of it what we will. I feel this particularly in the first movement of the A minor sonata, where the often sparse textures, uncompromising as they are, are allowed, as it were, to speak for themselves. Indeed, there is very little that can be termed interventionist in these performances. Yes, he makes a slight accelerando in the final bars of this same movement, but that is little more than a nod in the direction of surface drama, and the development section is almost classical in its emotional restraint. It is more fruitful for the listener to seek out the subtle differences in phrasing and dynamics in the repeats of the variations in the slow movement than it is to search for drama in the scherzo. The lilting, lulling trio is most affectingly done, however. The extended two-part writing in the finale is again presented to the listener unadorned, and here one might wish for something more impetuous, more passionate, though Kempff royally does the honours in the very final bars.

The sublime opening of the D. 960 sonata is wonderfully poised in Kempff’s hands, which makes it all the more of a pity that the sound is so poor here. This is due, I imagine, to deterioration of the master tape, and it settles down after only a few bars. All the same, there is a fair amount of background noise and print-through from the original tapes, and fortissimo passages, particularly the two in the finale, make for less than comfortable listening.

Kempff is quite free with pulse in the first movement, markedly more romantic in his approach here than he was in the earlier sonata. This is a view with which I concur in this most songlike of sonata movements. He does not observe the exposition repeat, which for some will be a relief – the movement is already a very long one – but for others will be a serious drawback, bearing in mind that this means omitting nine bars of music that Schubert composed expressly for the purpose, and which features, incidentally, one of the low, left-hand trills that occur throughout the movement. The slow movement is beautifully played in Kempff’s now familiar, rather straightforward – though far from anonymous – manner. The scherzo, too, is similarly clear-cut, and here as elsewhere one admires the pianist’s skill in bringing out melodic lines while never allowing the often repetitive accompanying figuration to sink into insignificance. Kempff launches the finale at a tempo as rapid as one is likely to hear it nowadays, and the effect is robust rather than playful, a perfectly valid view given the triumphant close, though the final crescendo can hardly be said to begin piano as the score demands.

Admirers of Wilhelm Kempff, who died only in 1991 at the age of ninety-five, will want this issue, particularly for the otherwise unavailable performance of the D. 960 Sonata. Schubert lovers, too, will welcome the serenity and wisdom of Kempff’s Schubertian vision. The pianist made a more beautiful sound than one gathers from this disc, and those for whom this is an important consideration will prefer to seek out one of the many more recent performances. The historic nature of these performances makes comparative listening irrelevant, and the quality of the readings is in any event beyond serious criticism.

The attractiveness of this issue is enhanced, as is customary, by a friendly, readable and informative booklet note by Jed Distler.

William Hedley

Fine, wise performances by a master pianist, in variable sound.