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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
The 32 Piano Sonatas (complete) - the legendary mono recordings
Wilhelm Kempff (piano)
rec. DGG, 1951-56
REGIS RRC9010 [9 CDs: 9:43:00]

Having been totally sold on Kempff’s 1960s DGG stereo recordings of the Beethoven sonatas as a teenager I’ve admired them ever since. I have to admit that I didn’t know that he had previously issued a mono set in the 1950s. Regis has done us a huge favour by reissuing this cycle at a ridiculously low bargain price with very good documentation and presented in a sturdy box. The 9 CDs are also laid out in order of composition starting with Sonatas 1 to 3 on CD1 and finishing with 30 to 32 on CD9. This enables the listener - if he or she so wishes - to listen to Beethoven’s developing genius as he put this monumental cycle of sonatas down on paper.
The sound quality is variable from disc to disc as you would expect from a mono cycle recorded over a six year period. None of the recordings can be described as sounding particularly glamorous but to be fair the engineering never gets in the way of some remarkable musicianship. The piano sound is thin, recessed and light at the bottom end. The top can sound a bit clangy on occasion and in places there is a curious electronic feel to the upper register. There are also patches of wavering pitch. Putting this into context the early Brendel Vox bargain cycle, now in the Brilliant Classics catalogue, offers somewhat better (but also thin) stereo sound. This Kempff mono cycle will not be purchased by hi-fi buffs. However, for Beethoven lovers with an interest in great music-making, this set needs to be snapped up despite the sonic flaws. Even if you have three or four cycles on your shelves, please add this one as a supplement.
Having thoroughly enjoyed this Regis set, it’s abundantly clear that Kempff was very consistent in his Beethoven interpretations over the years. Nothing from his stereo cycle is markedly different to what he has to offer in these tapes from the 1950s. For anyone coming fresh to Kempff there needs to be a word or two of warning. He isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. I personally love his cultured playing but there’s certainly a nod towards Mozart and Schubert in everything he does. This style is perfect, in my opinion, for the sonatinas and early sonatas but I can also enjoy the “bigger” works such as the Appassionata played in this manner. Others can’t and they find his playing to be severely underpowered and unemotional. It’s analogous to some conductors being masters in the even numbered Beethoven symphonies but maybe lacking thrust and drive in 3, 5 and 7. I accept exactly where the Kempff critics are coming from and understand their point of view. If you are expecting barnstorming, earth-shattering Beethoven then you really should stay away. If that’s what you are looking for then stick with Barenboim or maybe Ashkenazy.
So what exactly does Kempff offer in Beethoven? Well, to start with, every note is in place. The clarity and precision of his playing is second to none. This is obvious from the outset in his performances of the “easy” sonatas nos. 1 to 3 on the first CD. They may be easy - to professional pianists, that is - but the level of articulation on show here is a joy. This same quality can be heard in the later sonatas. Others may hammer out the last movement of the Moonlight with panache and gusto but Kempff keeps everything firmly in control. The arpeggios and runs are immaculate. There’s never any sense of panic or being out of control. Another quality Kempff brings to the music is a sense of calmness and serenity in the slow movements. Some listeners just hear a coolness and a lack of passion that they find off-putting. This is very subjective but I don’t subscribe to this at all. What I hear is a thoughtful pianist who puts the music first and simply plays it in a way that communicates readily with his audience. There’s no playing to the gallery or hot-headed pianism. In its place there is a clear-headed sense of purity and a fastidious honesty to the printed text. Beethoven is the star, not the pianist.
There are a few bargain versions around. The much underrated, consistent Jando cycle on Naxos is good value and sonically superior to Kempff. I still have a soft spot for the previously mentioned Brendel/Brilliant Classics set and also for John Lill (also on Brilliant Classics) but there’s an easy answer when it comes to choice. There isn’t a pianist who holds all the answers. Buy two or three cycles including one by Kempff just to experience a different approach. You can either go for the higher-priced, better sounding DGG stereo or this bargain Regis mono. You really can’t go far wrong with either of them.
John Whitmore 

Masterwork Index: Beethoven piano sonatas