Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Variations on a Theme of Corelli Op 42 (1931) [18.27]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750) arr. Ferruccio BUSONI (1866-1924)
Chaconne from Partita No 2 for Violin BWV1004 (1893) [13.57]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Valses Nobles et Sentimentales (1911) [14.51]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Trois Mouvements de Petrouchka (1921) [15.12]
Danse rusee (Russian Dance) [2.29]
Chez Petrouchka (At Petrouchka’s) [4.44]
La semaine grasse (The Shrove-Tide Fair) [7.55]
Freddy Kempf (piano)
rec. July 2010, Nybrokajen (the former Academy of Music), Stockholm, Sweden
BIS-SACD-1810 [63.45]

This recital of late 19th and early 20th Century masterpieces provides a perfect vehicle to showcase Freddy Kempf’s talents as a virtuoso pianist. The first two in the recital are adapted for the piano from the violin repertoire, while the third is a homage to the waltzes of Schubert and the fourth an adaptation by Stravinsky of three movements from his own ballet.

Rachmaninov uses the famous ‘Follia’ as the theme for the variations, a Spanish dance which Corelli used as the subject of the last of his Op. 5 violin sonatas which is itself a set of variations. Kempf is fully on top of the considerable technical demands and his tone and phrasing are immaculate throughout. He chooses to bring out the distinctive character of each of the individual variations. This allows him to deploy a wide range of tone colours, textures and tempi but this detracts from the overall architecture of the piece and sense of cohesion. I particularly liked the first two variations where Kempf nicely brings out the rich pianistic textures and syncopated rhythms and the quicksilver and capricious variations 6 and 7 where Kempf unleashes a virtuoso firestorm. The intermezzo and variations 14 and 15 provide a pastoral interlude. Kempf makes the most of this with some really rather lovely lyrical and expressive playing. In variations 16-20 he picks up the pace again and concludes the set with virtuoso aplomb.

Many great pianists from past and present have played Busoni’s transcription of Bach’s great violin chaconne, including Rubinstein, Grimaud and Kissin but it is probably Michelangeli’s performance which sets the benchmark. Once again Kempf is fully on top of the technical demands and some of the passage-work is really quite stunning. However, the beginning of the piece seemed rather episodic and lacked a sense of the music unfolding organically. Kempf, for all his technical brilliance, cannot quite match Michelangeli’s grandeur and searing intensity in this work.

Ravel’s ‘Valses nobles et sentimentales’ is probably the least overtly virtuosic of the works on this disc. I thought Kempf’s performance was exceptionally fine. Once again he deploys a wide range of tone colour to bring out the distinctive features of the waltzes, while the phrasing is artful and immaculately judged throughout. Kempf also captures the subtle and nuanced aspects and his playing is full of evocative suggestion, half-lights and shade.

Stravinsky wrote the three movements from Petrouchka for Rubinstein and it is one of the most fiendishly difficult pieces in the whole piano repertoire. Rubinstein was not satisfied with his own performance and never left a recording although Horowitz recorded the Russian Dance and Pollini championed the work. Latterly younger pianists have picked up Stravinsky’s gauntlet including Kissin and Wang. I have to say that Kempf gives Pollini, Kissin and Wang a run for their money as this recording is really quite exceptional.

Kempf takes the opening Russian Dance at a very fast pace and I was struck by his rhythmically incisive playing and his lightness of touch in these very dense textures. The intricate ornamentation and passage-work of the second dance are crisply and deftly articulated, and he uses the tone colours and rapidly changing rhythms to evoke the drama of the ballet. The third dance is nothing short of spectacular as Kempf uses every device in the pianist’s lexicon to suggest the festivities of the Shrove-Tide Fair. The handling of the extremely demanding writing work is really quite stunning.

Robert Beattie

A perfect vehicle to showcase Freddy Kempf’s talents as a virtuoso pianist.