The Dutch conductor Paul van Kempen (1893-1955) has been a name that
crops up rather than a constant presence in the world of recorded music.
There are those who prefer Wilhelm Kempffís first cycle of Beethoven
concertos not least on account of Van Kempenís conducting. His easy
cohabitation with the Nazi regime did not endear him to his own countrymen
or help him to rebuild his career in Holland after the war. His recordings
were not numerous and he did not make later LP versions of any of the works
on this issue. As transferred by Mark Obert-Thorn these discs have good
presence and body and a wider dynamic range than was common at the time.
This raises the question whether Van Kempen himself did not insist on a
wider dynamic range than many of his contemporaries on the podium. The
gentle, unforced lyrical playing of the quieter passages combined with the
often forceful approach to fortes suggest this may have been the case.
Van Kempen is said to have had an eruptive musical personality,
particularly suited to Tchaikovsky. This is not notably born out in the
Prometheus Overture, where a nicely shaped introduction is followed by a
vigorous but unexceptionable allegro, nor in the Ballet Music, where a
degree of un-balletic overemphasis seems to stem from Beethoven himself. It
is noticeable at a few points in the outer movements of the Second Symphony,
where the music is momentarily pushed ahead of the well-chosen tempi and a
touch of hysteria enters the proceedings. On the other hand, the slow
movement is beautifully shaped, at a fairly slow tempo but not so slow as to
lose a very natural sense of flow. This movement can overstay its length;
this is, for me, a rare case among slower versions where this did not
The first movement of the Fifth also has a few odd moments of
incipient hysteria, though they cannot conceal the fact that most of it is
very effectively hammered out while the few lyrical moments are really
beautiful. Van Kempenís shaping of the blunt chords shortly before the
recapitulation points out - uniquely in my experience - which of the two
chords is harmonically the more important. He is also very un-indulgent -
especially by the standards of his time - over the famous four-note motive,
for which he slows down hardly at all.
The scherzo is steady but well-sprung and very clear. The
justification of a steady scherzo, though, is that the difficult trio
doesnít become a scramble. Unfortunately the eruptive Van Kempen
intervenes and things get a bit scrappy. The finale is launched in fine
style, but shortly after the beginning of the development there is a loss of
tension, the tempo slightly slackens and even the recording has less
presence. I donít know where the side joins were - all power to
Obert-Thorn for linking them up so seamlessly - but Iím wondering of
the proceedings were interrupted at that point, maybe for some time, and did
not immediately pick up with the same degree of tension.
Which leaves the slow movement. Taken on the slow side it has a
heartfelt warmth, unhurried grandeur where required and some beautifully
limpid wind playing. This brings back the old, never-answered question.
should something recorded in wartime Nazi Germany express such
timeless, benign humanity?
Readers will have decided long ere now whether this latter aspect worries them.
In any case, Iíd say that these are not exactly essential Beethoven
performances. But those with large collections and a fascination
for the interpretation of these inexhaustible works should find
a place for them. They may well conclude that the slow movements
are among the finest in their library.