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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major Op. 83 [46:23]
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Overture Romeo and Juliet [20:01]
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 1 in D major Titan [54:44]
Wilhelm Kempff (piano)
French National Orchestra/Paul van Kempen (Brahms)
Concertgebouw Orchestra/Paul van Kempen (Tchaikovsky)
RAI Orchestra of Turin/Paul van Kempen (Mahler)
rec. live, 1 September 1955, Besançon Festival (Brahms); 17-18 July 1951 (venue not given) (Tchaikovsky); 20 May 1955 (venue not given) (Mahler)
TAHRA TAH 714-715 [66:54 + 54:54]

Paul van Kempen (1893-1955), the Dutch conductor, had a somewhat chequered career. He started life as a professional violinist at the Concertgebouw under its conductor at the time Willem Mengelberg. It was his encouragement that inspired the young violinist to pursue a career in conducting. The Netherlands, however, did not offer many opportunities, so he decided to move to Germany. After serving his apprenticeship with several lesser known orchestras, in 1934 he was offered the Dresden Philharmonic. A condition of his working in Germany was that he adopt German citizenship. A result of his eight year tenure at Dresden was that he raised the standard of the orchestra so that it could boast comparison with its rival the Staatskapelle. In 1942 he went on to replace Karajan at Aachen.
 
His decision to remain in Germany for the duration of the war had a negative impact on his career subsequently. After the war he returned to the Netherlands, which he used as a base for guest conductorships in France, Spain and Italy. Whilst there he became chief conductor of the Radio Orchestra in Hilversum in 1949. Yet, all the while, there were rumblings regarding his status as a German citizen. Whilst there was no proof that he had been a Nazi sympathizer or a member of the Nazi party, he was still heavily criticized and viewed with suspicion in some quarters. It all came to a head in 1951 when there were demonstrations at two performances of the Verdi Requiem with the Concertgebouw in which he was deputizing for an indisposed van Beinum. A couple of days later he repeated the work with his own orchestra, and this met with the throwing of tear gas bombs. He never gave live concerts with the Concertgebouw again though he did later made recordings with them.
 
Tahra have previously issued two volumes of studio recordings of the conductor entitled L’Art de Paul van Kempen’ and both have been reviewed on MusicWeb International (review review review). This supplementary volume contains both live and studio recordings which have hitherto remained unpublished.
 
Of all van Kempen’s recordings, it is the 1950s cycle of the complete piano concertos with Wilhelm Kempff and the Berlin Philharmonic which has had the most mileage. I suspect it has never been out of the catalogue, and quite rightly so. Many will regret that he didn’t go on to record the two Brahms’ concertos with the Dutch conductor. Kempff only took the first concerto into the studio, this time with the Staatskapelle Dresden under Franz Konwitschny. This was in 1957, two years after van Kempen’s death. So, Tahra’s release of the second concerto with Kempff and the Concertgebouw in a live performance from the Besançon Festival in 1955 is very welcome. The first movement is nicely paced with the adjectives 'noble' and 'majestic' springing to mind. Never mind the occasional finger-slip and momentary lack of ensemble, these in no way detract from what is otherwise a compelling performance. The second movement is rhythmically incisive. The cello solo in the third movement is ravishing and sets the tone for an eloquent and expressive reading. The finale brings the work to a spirited end.
 
Sound quality, considering the recording’s age and provenance, is satisfactory and microphone placement enables orchestral detail, especially woodwind, to be heard. Audience appreciation seals its fate with applause not only at the conclusion, but also after movements one and two.
 
It was between 1951-1955 that van Kempen made a series of Tchaikovsky recordings with the Concertgebouw. These included powerful readings of Symphonies 5 and 6, together with some shorter works of which Romeo and Juliet is one. Sound quality of this 1951 studio recording in excellent. It is a captivating performance and one of the best I’ve heard. There are powerful climaxes, but it is not an overtly emotional heart-on-sleeve reading. The big romantic tune doesn’t wallow, which can mar some performances. He captures well the desolation at the end of the overture.
 
Despite the fact that van Kempen only recorded Mahler’s Fourth Symphony for Telefunken, he did programme symphonies 1 to 5 and Das Lied von Der Erde several times late on in his career. This live recording of the First Symphony with the Turin forces is a valuable addition to the conductor’s discography, filling a lacuna. Although the performance is compromised with some ragged ensemble and sonic limitations, it is powerful and particularly vibrant and engaging, with van Kempen pulling out all the stops in the final movement.
 
This is a valuable release of recordings of a conductor, perhaps known mainly to connoisseurs.
 
Stephen Greenbank

Masterwork Index: Brahms concerto 2 ~~ Mahler symphony 1