Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto no. 1 in C major op. 15 (1800) [34:42]
Piano Concerto no. 2 in B flat op. 19 (1798) [27:13]
Piano Concerto no. 3 in C minor op. 37 (1803-4) [34:04]
Piano Concerto no. 4 in G major op. 58 (1805-6) [32:02]
Piano Concerto no. 5 in E flat op. 73 Emperor (1809) [39:03]
Wilhelm Kempff (piano)
NHK Symphony Orchestra, Tokyo/Tadashi Mori
rec. April 1970, live, Tokyo Bunka Kaikan Hall
KING INTERNATIONAL INC KKC 2017-19 [3 CDs: 62:20 + 66:38 + 39:03]
Wilhelm Kempff made two LP cycles of the concertos, the first with van Kempen, with whom he was much associated on disc, and the second with Leitner. In addition, he made a pre-war 78 recording of the Emperor Concerto in Berlin with Raabe, and the Third and Fourth concertos with van Kempen. Both LP cycles have their adherents and I wouldn’t be without either, though sonically the mono van Kempen invariably cedes to the Leitner in that respect. In artistic terms, things are very much more even.
Now here is a live, ancillary boxed collection of the concertos performed in April 1970 in Tokyo, which therefore post-dates the stereo Leitner cycle. It has things in its favour. The NHK was in very much better form now than it had been in the 1950s and even the earlier 1960s when it was still a shaky ensemble. The stereo broadcast quality is perfectly reasonable. Kempff plays with fluency and poetry. But there are also the inevitable corollaries of live performance, and balancing: the percussion, for instance, is aggressively recorded. Though there is clarity and grandeur in the Emperor and a classicist reserve in the slow movement, one senses Kempff tiring in the finale where he makes some small slips. I suspect that this is because he had just played the G major concerto as well that evening. Two days earlier he had actually performed the first three concertos in one concert. This was the kind of thing that wunderkind violinists used to do to show off their stamina in the 1930s, but I wonder if it was reasonable to expect Kempff to do it.
That G major performance seems less impressive than Kempff’s usual high standard. He gets through the slow movement quite briskly - in Berlin with Leitner he had been a full minute slower and in this compact movement that’s a telling difference. Worse, the results are curiously inexpressive for this most poetic of players. Was he unsettled? The C minor is a good, solid Kempff performance with, as usual, his own cadenza in the opening movement. The slow movement is refined, the finale emphatic. Tadashi Mori (1921-87) was a good orchestral trainer but from these results not the most thoughtful or poetic of conductors.
The highest level of hiss comes in the First Concerto, but this performance has freshness and enthusiasm (because it was the first to be performed, maybe?). His lyricism and refined touch are heard at their best here and in the Second Concerto.
This is a valuable souvenir of Kempff in Tokyo, a country he loved and where he, too, was much loved, and esteemed. Clearly it can’t stand in the company of the two studio cycles, which means it’s strictly for completists. The sleeve notes, by the way, are only in Japanese.
Jonathan Woolf  

A valuable souvenir of Kempff in Tokyo, but strictly for completists. 

Masterwork Index: Beethoven piano concertos