Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Fantasiestücke, Op. 12 (1837) [28:28]
Blumenstück, Op. 19 (1839) [6:40]
Études symphoniques, Op. 13 (1836) [33:34]
Freddy Kempf (piano)
rec. September 2012, Potton Hall, Saxmundham, Suffolk, England
No sooner had I put down Imogen Cooper’s Schumann recording on Chandos (see review) than I was up for another Fantasiestücke from Freddy Kempf on BIS. I hugely admire his Prokofiev concertos recording for the same label (see review), so the opportunity to hear some of his solo Schumann was an opportunity not to be missed.
The Potton Hall location is a current favourite for chamber music and piano recordings, excellent results being produced from there by the likes of Noriko Ogawa. Different repertoire calls for different approaches, but it is interesting to hear a sunny and light sound from Ogawa’s Mozart disc, where this Schumann is distinctly darker and more mid-range heavy. It’s like the difference between brand new oak panels and those weathered by a patina of time. This is a good piano sound, bringing out a full bass sonority and nice warmth of expression. You might initially want to push it through your speakers with a little more volume than normal to gain the full picture, but by the end of the Études symphoniques you will know all about this Steinway D, and might even find its serial number has imprinted itself onto your left woofer.
Comparing Kempf with Cooper in the Fantasiestücke is an education. The opening, Des Abends, is given plenty of rubato by Cooper, who uses a swifter tempo to draw out exquisite shapes from that melodic line. Kempf is slower but straighter, preferring to make time stand still in a movement of rapt wonder. There is something to be said for either approach, but it’s like comparing two entirely different pieces. The drama of the following Aufschwung is a compelling and urgently poetic drama from Kempf, swifter than Cooper, who spends more time layering dynamics and bringing out the different melodic voices from top, middle and bass. There is a coherence to Kempf’s approach and a satisfying sense of character from his playing here, but he does miss that rhapsodic sense that certain passages might have been plucked from the A minor Piano Concerto.
The Cooper/Kempf comparison continues in this vein with Kempf pulling the music around less, but still bringing out masses of expression and such beauty of tone that it sometimes seems like an angel has landed on the piano lid and given voice. I love Cooper’s playing and still do even after the Kempf experience, but there are numerous places where his directness of approach with the material brought out a little ‘ah’ of startled amazement. Take In der Nacht for instance, where Kempf keeps us in a state of nervous anticipation with his dynamic extremes. Cooper is also wonderful here, but makes those expulsions of sound a touch more shapely in a slightly slower tempo, and is therefore less nervy and anxious sounding. If you want your Schumann to shake you up in the darkness of the night then Kempf is your man. The only place he makes me itchy is in the character theme which opens Fabel, played so slowly it makes me anxious for the wrong reasons. This is a theme with vital personal associations for Schumann but isn’t much more than a cadence. Play it expressively by all means, but stretching it beyond the lyrical doesn’t add to its meaning in my view.
Blumenstück is a fine piece, and one of the two manuscripts Schumann gave to his bride Clara in 1840 as a gift on their wedding. Kempf’s performance is uncontroversial, swifter than Horowitz in his classic Columbia recording, and less extreme in bringing out the melodic lines. Kempf creates and maintains an intimate feel with the piece, not burdening it with too much added poetry or perfume.
Schumann’s Études symphoniques have been the subject of a certain amount of push and pull with regard to editions and composer’s intentions, and the booklet helpfully tells us that Kempf’s version is based on Schumann’s own 1852 revisions, plus two movements left out from the 1837 version, and including five variations composed in 1834 but not published until 1890. In other words, ‘the full works’ is what we have here, and magnificently played by Freddy Kempf, with elegance and technical fluidity, as well as keeping all of that nervous tension and rapidity of mood change which these grandly arching sequences of variations demand.
I first caught a whiff of Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s recording of this work on one of those promo collections (see review), but his 2006 live Warner Classics recording, while not quite as complete as Freddy Kempf’s, is a very good choice for its vibrancy and lack of pretension. A more full-fat version can be had on the Regis Alto label with Alfred Brendel, though this swings towards the kind of individualist stance which both Aimard and Kempf have tended to avoid, at times giving the music added layers of interpretation which can make following the score a trial for the uninitiated. Sviatoslav Richter is the one to go for from the Regis label if you are out for a bargain. There are myriad more or less recent versions, including another remarkable but also rather personalised performance from Mikhail Pletnev on Deutsche Grammophon, Ivo Pogerelich’s at times painfully slow and ‘deep’ recording from the same label, and Murray Perahia’s rather decent but hard to find CBS recording, the list goes on… I rooted out my copy of Sergei Edelmann’s performance on the Triton label (see review) to make a comparison with something on SACD and this remains a fine performance, though not up to Freddy Kempf’s standard - just compare the way Kempf makes something almost akin to Shostakovich out of the remarkable Variation 7 [Étude VIII] and you won’t be going back to Edelmann, good though he is.
Freddy Kempf to my mind offers the best of these various worlds while of course creating one of his own. He equals the warmth of sonority and sense of anticipation in Brendel’s opening Thema without pulling at the rhythms, and at each point of contact - leaving aside the lesser-known variations - comes up trumps in terms of tempo and communication. The suspensions of Étude III for instance are nicely stressed without distorting the flow of the music, and the tempo is just right for the traversing notes to create harmonic colour without drawing attention away from the melody. Schumann can be fantastically banal in this piece, and Kempf responds to the plod of Variation 3 [Étude IV] with an imperturbable touch between the proverbial rock and the other hard place. Excitement aplenty is to be had, for instance in the rapid Agitato of Variation 5, and the whole thing is a white-knuckle ride through the following Allegro Molto during which the safety of the bass strings seems at risk. It’s not all drama, and the sensitivities of several of the op. posth. variations and the penultimate Variation 9 all create their own intimate spaces, the sense of danger from Schumann the actor and teller of scary stories is however never very far away.
You may already have a big bucketful of Schumann, and will probably be wondering if this is worth adding to this deepening resource in these stricken times. If you are a fan of the Études symphoniques then I would say a resounding yes. You may check your version and see if it has all of those missed out variations, in which case you will want a more complete version in any case. Freddy Kempf makes the case for this edition most emphatically, and the standard never dips. The Blumenstück is a nice extra but not decisive, but if you are looking for a Fantasiestücke with plenty of imagination but a bit less added Fantasie then this is the place to try anew. BIS’s recording is magnificent, and by the end of the Finale of the Études symphoniques you will be able to reconstruct the grand piano in your living room by ear alone. Yes, it really is that big.
Yes, it really is that big.
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